Trump University and Scientology

Trump “University” was set up like Scientology. Wow. This sentence is in The Washington Post today: “Three-day courses typically cost $1,495, the records show. But people who paid to attend them were then urged to sign up for even pricier ‘elite’ programs.” Once you reached the inner sanctum of Trump’s secret gnosis (making contact with his deepest inner asshole, I presume), you were in something like $30,000 of debt. Perhaps it was then that you learned Donald Trump is Xenu, the intergalactic warlord, on a mission to strap his enemies around active volcanoes and blow them to smithereens with nuclear weapons. (Like he did, according to L. Ron Hubbard, 75 million years ago.)

New interviews and documents show how customers were pushed to spend on…
WASHINGTONPOST.COM|BY ROSALIND HELDERMAN
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Donald Trump Is Already Wearing Thin

We’re barely into the general election cycle, and Trump’s shtick has grown tediously predictable and boring. He’s almond milk past its due date. He has no variant flavors or notes. He’s already shot his wad. You pick the metaphor.

He’s done.

Yes, there are five months to the election, but the writing is on the wall, Nebuchadnezzar.

Here’s Rick Perlstein at Salon recounting the start of a recent Trump rally: “In Fresno, Donald approached the podium. He led off with a customary boast. (‘What a crowd…I saw on television this morning,…’).”

Does anybody give a shit at this point? We’ve seen this performance. We already know that, with Trump, there’s no there, there.

He started as a pirate, and only a month ago it looked like Mussolini-style politics might win over a majority of Americans in 2016.

But how fast the winds have changed. His galleon is obviously going down–and at the very moment when the Republican rats have been scurrying on, not off, the ship!

Good riddance to Donald Trump and his ship of fools and opportunists. It’s evident it will soon rest at the bottom of dragon seas, brought down by nothing more complicated than sustained scrutiny.

So I’m already calling this election: not Trump. Somebody will be taking the oath of office to serve as President of the United States in January of 2017, but it won’t be Trump.

This doesn’t mean don’t vote, don’t work against his election. That has to be done. But it’s increasingly clear where this is headed.

Trump was well-adapted to the demographic and temperamental environment of the 2016 Republican primary; he is ill-adapted to the demographic and temperamental environment of the 2016 American electorate in general.

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Donald Trump: “Look at my African-American over here.”

This is in The New York Times. I’m not making this up. At an airport in California a couple of hours ago, Donald Trump pointed to a black guy in his audience as evidence that black voters love him and he’s not racist: “Look at my African-American over here.”

While recalling a past protest involving a black supporter, the candidate pointed to a spectator in the crowd who was out of view of the news media.
NYTIMES.COM|BY NICK CORASANITI
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Life Perspective: Elon Musk Thinks Odds High We Live In A Simulation

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Hillary Clinton Just Gave The Speech Of Her Life

In San Diego, Hillary Clinton just gave the speech of her life. I watched it. It was amazing, and it’s already on YouTube. I’m a bit of a softy, but by the end, I was in tears. She said exactly what needs to be said about the country, and Trump’s threat to it–and with perfect pitch and self-possession.

In the YouTube below, her speech starts twenty minutes in. If Hillary can stay centered and draw the contrasts between herself and Trump as effectively as she does here, she’ll win–and win big. I WANT to vote for her after seeing this–and not JUST vote for her because she’s not Trump. I will work for this woman’s election. She is going to break through the static and win. I can see it.

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Richard Cohen Discovers Hitchcock’s Birds

I think the following comment over the weekend by Richard Cohen in The Washington Post is profound:

Donald Trump has taught me to fear my fellow American. I don’t mean the occasional yahoo who turns a Trump rally into a hate fest. I mean the ones who do nothing. Who are silent. Who look the other way….When I see these Trump supporters on television — the commentators, the Politician’s Puttanesca (a dish to poison the body politic) — I have to wonder where they would draw the line. The answer seems to be: nowhere.

It’s the birds. The movie for this election is Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). In 2016, the movie’s birds seem to be an apt trope for Trump’s voters. What the characters in the film take at first to be an isolated and controllable phenomenon blooms into an infestation, calling to mind Camus’ The Plague (1947). The blonde elitist woman in The Birds (played by Tippi Hedren) can be seen as Hillary Clinton, and her very presence in the blue collar world of Bodega Bay has set the order of nature on its head. What was sedate, predictable, and tame is now unsettled, untamed.

So first there is the shock of the isolated incidents of a few birds here and there behaving erratically, then, by the end of the film, you realize that the birds have morphed into a mass phenomenon, stretching to the horizon. They appear to have achieved full take-over of America. The goal of vanquishing them has been replaced by the lesser goal of simply outlasting them (or finding a place, anyplace, where they are not). In the concluding scene, the birds are tip-toed around by the surviving characters as they move quietly from their house to an automobile, no longer resisted. They have learned not to stir them. The birds, at the ready to whip into a frenzy on the least provocation, have become the new normal.

In 2016, liberals and moderates like myself think we know our more conservative neighbors, our fellow citizens, and of what they’re capable. Perhaps we don’t. Perhaps we have never really known them at all. The film concludes on a note of profound alienation–as may the 2016 election.

 

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Draft Dodger Donald

Draft Dodger Donald. If I were advising Hillary Clinton, I would suggest she try on this moniker for Donald Trump because it tells you everything you need to know about his lifelong corner-cutting. Rather than go to Vietnam, Trump received, not one, but four deferments–and then, when he ran through those, he got a dubious medical exclusion.

His medical condition? He says it was bone spurs in his foot–even though he was thoroughly active in sports at the time.

So while men of his generation were going through the ordeal of Vietnam, he not only avoided the draft, but got into the Wharton School in Pennsylvania–and not on the strength of merit, but on his family connections. It’s not even clear that he actually attended his classes consistently.

Think about that. Trump is partying and playing on weekends in New York, and he’s maybe–maybe–attending some classes here and there, while people like John McCain are fighting a war.

Trump didn’t avoid the draft because he thought the war was wrong, or because he was a conscientious objector or pacifist, but because he was a coward. Draft Dodger Trump.

And now, at age seventy, Trump is playing the role of Mr. Pro-Military. What a joke.

The benefit of the moniker, especially if directed at him by Hillary and others face-to-face, is that it punctures the cult-like spell that he puts over his followers as a tough guy, and vividly reminds us that he’s actually low energy, lazy, and cuts corners. It exposes his hypocrisy and cowardice.

Draft Dodger Donald’s recent raising of funds for veterans can thus be seen as yet another example of him deploying money as substitute for actually exposing himself to risk. In Draft Dodger Donald’s world, his money covers over everything, and fixes everything.

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Hillary’s Floor is Trump’s Ceiling

I have a theory as to why Hillary and Trump are essentially tied in the polls right now: Trump is at his ceiling and Hillary is at her floor. 44% is where Hillary is at when she’s having a poor news week, and 46% is where Trump is at when he’s having a strong news week.

I don’t think Trump has any more voters he can really attract. All the low-hanging fruit is picked. The Republican base, the Republican Party as a whole, and conservative leaning independents: that’s Trump’s 46% (max).

So I predict that once Hillary starts to consolidate the Democratic vote, you won’t see many polls–not even Rasmussen–that consistently put her in a dead heat with Trump. She’ll always be in the 44-55% range and Trump will always hover in the 39-46% range. The rest will go to the Libertarian candidate.

This shouldn’t make for complacency. Democrats will need to get out the vote to guarantee a win in November. But I think what we’re seeing is Trump’s high water mark in polling right now, in this very week (the last week of May, 2016). It looks close, like Trump could break out to a new level, peeling off Hillary voters, drawing 50% or more of the vote–but this is illusory. Trump really has nowhere to go from 46%, but down. Every percentage point above 46% is going to be, for him, akin to the dieter knocking down those last few pounds of a goal. They’re the most difficult. Like a dieter, even if Trump were to get closer to his goal (50%+1)–which he won’t–the gain would be brief and unstable–and vulnerable to rapid collapse.

Trump getting between 39-46% of the vote is his natural level. Given the demographics and voting patterns of the country (women are more likely to vote than men; Hispanic voter registration is on the rise, etc.), Trump’s natural level of appeal to the American voting population in 2016 is about 39-46%–and that’s where Trump is likely to land on election day (somewhere below Romney, who got 47% of the vote).

Trump’s fundamental weakness in the polls is why he dodged a debate with Bernie this week. The moment Trump has voters’ full attention on issues that he’s supposedly strong on (protecting blue collar workers, etc.), people will register just how fully he is in the pocket of the rich, Wall Street, and the Republican Party. (Bernie would point out Trump’s hypocrisies forcefully.)

Take the minimum wage, for instance. If Trump commits to raising the minimum wage, he alienates key Republican voters, and if he won’t go as high as Hillary and Bernie on a number (Bernie’s number is $15 an hour), he loses the argument that he’s for the workers anyway.

This will all be absorbed by the electorate when the Super PACs start swift-boating Trump, demonstrating that where Trump is seemingly strong, he’s actually weak. In the Republican primary, the ad war was tepid, but in the general election, it will be fierce and relentless. Trump will have great difficulty maintaining 46% of support from the electorate as a whole, let alone 50%. Hillary will get her swift-boating from pro-Trump PACs as well, but, again, her floor is roughly equal to Trump’s ceiling.

Or, to put it in Emily Dickinson terms, Trump’s cornice is in Hillary’s ground. Because Trump could not stop for demographic death, demographic death will kindly stop for him. This is what the 2016 election is about: demonstrating to Republicans in real time that a party devoted to anxiety politics and blue collar white resentment, even when combined with celebrity (a hyper-confident, TV-familiar con-man), cannot win in America’s fast-evolving demographic environment–and even if Democrats put up a relatively weak candidate like Hillary Clinton.

There’s no substitute, Republicans will discover, for the hard work of adaptation. Donald Trump is the ultimate corner-cutter. That’s what he sells to desperate people. His appeal is akin to the carnival barker who sells a diet pill that (he claims) can lead to weight loss without a change of behavior.

So reality over the next several months will assert itself in the ongoing polls, and on election day itself. That reality is demographic reality. Donald Trump is presiding right now over a cargo cult that imagines its leader has a Reagan-imitative formula for achieving flight: combine the existing Republican constituency with Trump Democrats (the equivalent of the Reagan Democrats of the 1980s). But Trump’s seeming magic in this moment–he’s at parody with Hillary in the most recent polls–does not mean he is on the verge of resurrecting the ghost of Reagan over the 2016 electorate, and casting a populist spell on them. The reality is that Trump is simply not that popular. A minority of Americans will vote for him–and will express support for him in polls–but not a majority.

So what will be shown over the next several months is that there’s nothing really sustaining Trump’s fantasies of everybody loving him, and he will soon leave his devotees–the bulk of the Republican Party–to pick through the wreckage of a devastating electoral loss.

The Republican Party is vulnerable to a cult leader right now because it is not yet able to adjust to the country’s demographic reality. Like an immune system in a novel environment, the Republican Party is susceptible to exotic diseases. Its disease of the moment is Donald Trump. After the election, Republicans will be walking around, saying, “How could I have believed in that guy’s con game? I really got snookered. I got carried off. How embarrassing.”

So here’s the bell curve: (1) Trump shock (that is, the stunned realization over the past month that Trump has truly captured the GOP nomination); (2) fight or flight (the majority of Republicans are choosing right now, to their shame, to go ahead and fight alongside Trump, rather than fly from him); (3) no matter how hard his enthusiasts peddle their bicycle of support going forward, Trump’s poll numbers will remain stalled in the 39-46% range; (4) Trump’s stalled poll numbers will serve to break the Trump spell generally, and that’s when the sharks will really start to circle the corpse of his candidacy; (5) fatigue and demoralization will set in as Republicans realize Trump is almost certainly going to lose; (6) demoralization will turn to panic in some quarters, and anger that Trump has brought the GOP to such an electoral impasse–and perhaps even a cliff; and (7) on election day, Trump will lose badly (as the polling averages predicted he would all along).

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Leon Wieseltier on Donald Trump: “We must not accustom ourselves to this.”

This comes via E.J. Dionne at The Washington Post:

My friend, the writer Leon Wieseltier, suggested a slogan that embodies the appropriate response to Trump’s ascent: “Preserve the Shock.”

“The only proper response to his success is shame, anger and resistance,” Wieseltier said. “We must not accustom ourselves to this. . . . Trump is not a ‘new normal.’ No amount of economic injustice, no grievance, justifies the resort to his ugliness.”

Wieseltier’s comment to Dionne recalls for me Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). In 2016, the movie’s birds seem to be an apt trope for Trump’s voters. What the characters in the film take at first to be an isolated and controllable phenomenon blooms into an infestation, calling to mind Camus’ The Plague (1947). The blonde elitist woman in The Birds (played by Tippi Hedren) can be seen as Hillary Clinton, and her very presence in the blue collar world of Bodega Bay has set the order of nature on its head. What was sedate, predictable, and tame is now unsettled, untamed.

So first there is the shock of the isolated incidents of a few birds here and there behaving erratically, then, by the end of the film, you realize that the birds have morphed into a mass phenomenon, stretching to the horizon. They appear to have achieved full take-over of America. The goal of vanquishing them has been replaced by the lesser goal of simply outlasting them (or finding a place, anyplace, where they are not). In the concluding scene, the birds are tip-toed around by the surviving characters as they move quietly from their house to an automobile, no longer resisted. They have learned not to stir them. The birds, at the ready to whip into a frenzy on the least provocation, have become the new normal.

In 2016, liberals and moderates like myself think we know our more conservative neighbors, our fellow citizens, and of what they’re capable. Perhaps we don’t. Perhaps we have never really known them at all. The film concludes on a note of profound alienation–as may the 2016 election.

So that’s The Birds glossed for our political moment in 2016. Fortunately for those of us who are liberal or moderate, 2016 is still playing out, and we’re knee deep in the bird-shit muddle of it. Our real-time rendition of The Birds may make for us a better end than it did for Hitchcock’s characters. The danger now is what Wieseltier identifies: to accustom ourselves to Trump’s new normal; to lower or even drop our resistance to it, as so many in the Republican Party, to their eternal shame, already–and so easily!–have done. To echo Thoreau, we must resist the temptation to resignation. “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.”

I’m not desperate yet, so I’m not resigned. I’m ready to resist Trump and fight alongside Wieseltier and Hillary. How about you?

tomb-of-hunting-and-fishing-italy-520-bce

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He’s Scared. He’s Selling Fear. Scaredy Trump.

Since Donald Trump has a nickname for Hillary Clinton (“Crooked Hillary”), I would like to see Hillary deploy the following moniker Trump’s way: Scaredy Trump.

America is better without walls. No Scaredy Trump.

Scaredy Trump. It exposes the Emperor of White Scream as naked; as the little boy he is, afraid of the dark.

Scaredy Trump is the sort of meme that, even for the lowest of low information voters, might prompt the following reflection: If you think about it, even just a little bit, Trump is a chickenshit.

Trump talks tough, but it’s from weakness; an inner weakness. He’s not a brave man, but a weak man.

And this weakness is the thread of Trump’s life narrative. You see it in his lying, shortcuts, and corner-cutting; in his dodging of service in Vietnam; in his reliance on his daddy’s money to the tune of about $150 million dollars; in his four bankruptcies; in his conspiracy theory paranoia.

Trump is a hysterical man. He has always kept himself well-shielded from the consequences of his actions; he has always lived with servants catering to his whims; and he has always been litigious, living behind barriers, high in towers.

And now he wants to bring his way of being in the world to the nation as a whole. He has lived as Rapunzel, and now he wants the nation to mirror back to him his own image: the nation as Rapunzel.

Trump’s vision for America is not Reagan’s city set upon a hill. It’s Rapunzel in a tower.

He’s scared. He’s selling fear. Scaredy Trump.

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Why Hillary (If She Picks Bernie) Will Win

I’ve had an insight this morning as to why Donald Trump is likely to lose to Hillary Clinton. The Republican Party, in 2016, has showed itself incapable of yielding to the browning, greening, and feminizing of America. To distract from this fact, it has put forward someone who can yield on two economic, as opposed to cultural, matters: trade and attacking Wall Street.

That’s Donald Trump.

But here’s the problem. To reverse-echo Harry Truman, if you give people a choice between a Democrat and a Democrat, they’ll pick the Democrat every time. Now that Trump is the Republican nominee–a candidate who blends white nationalism with nods to protectionist and paternal socialism–all Hillary has to do is put Bernie Sanders on the ticket with her, and she blunts the two concessions that the Republican Party has made to the electorate this year.

Bernie Sanders is a candidate who blends multicultural nationalism with nods to protectionist and paternal socialism–and Hillary will have little problem playing along.

So after Republicans lose badly with Trump, they’ll be back at square one: how to finally surrender to America’s increasingly multicultural, greening, and feminist identity. After 2016, nostalgia politics directed full throttle at white nationalists will be a thing of the past–at least in national elections.

Trump therefore isn’t just highlighting the weaknesses, contradictions, and vulnerabilities within the Democratic Party this year, but its strengths. He’s showing us that the Democrats are, in fact, better positioned to ride America’s demographic and cultural waves to ever more decisive national electoral victories than are Republicans.

Thus Trump is symptom, not cure. He’s showing Republicans that they are actually in the unenviable role of playing political catch up with the Democrats. He’s not showing them how to actually catch up. Building walls won’t work.

So what we’re witnessing is the Californication of our national elections. Democrats have no problem thriving in California’s demographic environment. The majority of Californians like California’s demographic diversity–and 2016 will show that the majority of Americans like–and want to protectthe country’s increasing demographic diversity as a whole. It makes us distinctive among the nations.

The majority also want Wall Street held accountable. And green policies put in place. And feminism to flourish. They want the one percenters’ feet held to the fire–and all these issues work well for Democrats.

So the Democrats are in a better position to surf the electoral wave this year than are Republicans–and it’s why, if Hillary picks Bernie for VP (or someone like Bernie), she’s almost certainly going to win, and perhaps win big.

Between now and the election, the far right will try to muddy this picture, pushing isolated polls suggesting a close race, but the actual signals in the noise are two: (1) the Republican Party has failed to adjust to the browning, greening, and feminizing of America; and (2) it has put forth an alternative gambit for running in this year’s election cycle that is grounded in issues that favor Democrats: opposing free trade and the Wall Street one percenters.

A simple example: Trump (maybe) wants to raise the national minimum wage a bit. Bernie calls for $15 an hour. Hillary is not far behind. She says she’d sign such a wage increase if it made it through Congress. Who wins this argument if the electorate’s mood is to help the little guy? If you give people the choice between a Democrat and Democrat,…

santi lia aria playing chess

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David Hume On Beauty–And How To Get Good At Detecting It

Is taste in art and literature akin to taste in ice cream? In 1757, the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) published four essays under the title, Four Dissertations, one of which he called “Of the Standard of Taste.” In it, Hume attempts to tackle the question of why people vary in opinion with regard to the beautiful. In doing so, Hume also teaches us how to read closely and see.

He begins by noting the problem that, even among persons sharing the same “narrow circle,” “educated under the same government,” and sharing “the same prejudices,” one can still discover differences of taste with regard to beauty.

Why is that?

Hume doesn’t think it’s because people disagree in the abstract about where beauty tends to be found:

Every voice is united in applauding elegance, propriety, simplicity, spirit in writing; and in blaming fustian [‘a high swelling kind of writing made up of heterogeneous parts’—Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary, 1756], affectation, coldness, and a false brilliancy […]

Nor does Hume think it’s because beauty is just in the eye of the beholder (strictly subjective). He doesn’t agree, for example, with this line of argumentation:

[A] thousand different sentiments [sensibilities; feelings; opinions], excited by the same object, are all right: Because no sentiment represents what is really in the object. It only marks a certain conformity or relation between the object of the organs or faculties of the mind; . . . Beauty is no quality in things themselves. It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty. . . . every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment, without pretending to regulate those of others.

Again, Hume disagrees with this plausible and common sense argument, for it leads to absurd conclusions, such as applauding the opinion of a critic who might treat the poetry of John Ogilby, a minor Scottish poet and Homer translator of the 17th century, as equivalent to that of a major poet like John Milton, author of Paradise Lost (1667). Such a judgment would be as if one “had maintained a mole-hill to be as high as Teneriffe [a volcanic peak in the Canary Islands],” and would not deserve respect from educated people. Treating beauty as strictly subjective also fails to explain how a famous poet like Homer could please “Athens and Rome two thousand years ago” and still be “admired at Paris and London” today. Despite “the changes of climate, government, religion, and language,” educated people agree that Homer’s poetry has beauty and power: the interventions of space and time “have not been able to obscure his glory.” Beauty, for Hume, is objective.

If we agree on the criteria for beauty, why disagreements? But we’re still left with a problem: if broad principles of what tends to make for beautiful things (symmetries; coherences; novel contrasts; etc.) can be agreed upon and beauty is, in some sense, objectively “out there” in nature, art, and literary artifacts themselves, why are there aesthetic disagreements? Hume locates the problem in us, in our senses of discrimination, which he takes to be delicate and subject to poor calibrations, like the mechanism of a watch:

Those finer emotions of the mind are of a very tender and delicate nature, and require the concurrence of many favourable circumstances to make them play with facility and exactness, according to their general and established principles. The least exterior hindrance to such small springs, or the least internal disorder, disturbs their motion, and confounds the operation of the whole machine.

The criteria we assign to the beautiful in the abstract, in other words, can be picked up by us in practice only if our discerning faculties are well-tuned, and neither damaged nor working improperly. Just as you wouldn’t, for example, expect “a man in a fever” to be “able to decide concerning flavours,” so you cannot expect an agitated or distracted person to be especially discerning of beauty. Some people, likewise, have little native aptitude for “delicacy of imagination,” something Hume insists “is requisite to convey a sensibility of those finer emotions.”

Prejudice and bias. Another reason that people may not perceive the same things as beautiful has to do with prejudice: people possess different habits of attention and temperamental biases that make it difficult to notice all the things in the world that are actually beautiful:

A young man, whose passions are warm, will be more sensibly touched with amorous and tender images, than a man more advanced in years, who takes pleasure in wise, philosophical reflections concerning the conduct of life and moderation of the passions.

Likewise,

One person is more pleased with the sublime; another with the tender; a third with raillery. One has a strong sensibility to blemishes, and is extremely studious of correctness: Another has a more lively feeling of beauties, and pardons twenty absurdities and defects for one elevated or pathetic stroke.

Culturally, people also carry biases:

[W]e are more pleased, in the course of our reading, with pictures and characters, that resemble objects which are found in our own age or country, than with those which describe a different set of customs.

Senses attuned to aspect seeing. Still another reason that people may not agree on the beautiful is that their sense organs (their powers of imagination and vision) are differently calibrated: one may be naturally sensitive to one subtle quality in an object; another to a different quality. That is, their senses may both be highly attuned to beauty, but to very different aspects of it. By way of analogy, Hume offers two people passing very different judgments as to the qualities adhering to a wine: one praises it as promising, but detects “a small taste of leather,” and the experience of it is thus ruined for him. The other too praises it as good, “but with the reserve of a taste of iron.” Before ridiculing their judgments as grounded in fantasy, Hume asks us to imagine that, on drinking the whole bottle, “there was found at the bottom, an old key with a leathern thong tied to it.” From this, Hume draws the conclusion that, just as there are qualities in wine that make for judgments as to its sweetness or bitterness, so there are qualities in objects that make for judgments as to their beauty or deformity: “[T]here are certain qualities in objects, which are fitted by nature to produce those particular feelings,” and these qualities of beauty and deformity can be very fine and difficult to detect:

Now as these qualities may be found in a small degree, or may be mixed and confounded with each other, it often happens, that the taste is not affected with such minute qualities, or is not able to distinguish all the particular flavors, amidst the disorder, in which they are presented. Where the organs are so fine, as to allow nothing to escape them; and at the same time so exact as to perceive every ingredient in the composition: This we call delicacy of taste, whether we employ these terms in the literal or metaphorical sense.

Our taste in beauty, in other words, is very like our taste in wine: just as we must have a developed and sensitive palette to detect the subtle qualities in a wine, so we must have a developed and sensitive faculty of aesthetic taste—a “delicacy of imagination”—to detect and render good judgments concerning all the qualities of a beautiful thing in nature, art, or literature.

Delicacy, sensitivity, and precision of sense. So this is the reason that it’s not “easy to silence the bad critic, who might always insist upon his particular sentiment, and refuse to submit” to a critic of more refined judgments. People differ in their powers of sensitivity, and this means that some apprehend details far more perfectly than others. Note Hume’s use of the phrase nothing to escape and the words exactnesssmallelaborate, minutenessacuteunobserved in the following passage from his essay:

It is acknowledged to be the perfection of every sense or faculty, to perceive with exactness its most minute objects, and allow nothing to escape its notice and observation. The smaller the objects are, which become sensible to the eye, the finer is that organ, and the more elaborate its make and composition. A good palate is not tried by strong flavours; but by a mixture of small ingredients, where we are still sensible of each part, notwithstanding its minuteness and its confusion with the rest. In like manner, a quick and acute perception of beauty and deformity must be the perfection of our mental taste; nor can a man be satisfied with himself while he suspects, that any excellence or blemish in a discourse has passed him unobserved.

Hume is insisting here on very close reading and seeing. To reach this highest experience of beauty—“perfection of our mental taste”—nothing must get past the perceiver “unobserved.”

Practice makes perfect. But can you do anything about this? That is, can you obtain this well-calibrated aesthetic faculty—the faculty of taste, or is it just something a person is born with, as some are born with more sensitive ears and taste buds than others? Here’s Hume’s answer:

[T]hough there be naturally a wide difference in point of delicacy between one person and another, nothing tends further to increase and improve this talent, than practice in a particular art, and the frequent survey or contemplation of a particular species of beauty.

In other words, there’s hope for the person interested in becoming a close discriminator of beauty: practice makes perfect. But the best that people tend to do without practice is to recognize beauty in only the most general fashion: “The [unpracticed] taste cannot perceive the several excellencies of the performance.” Also, the subsequent judgment lacks confidence:

If it pronounce the whole in general to be beautiful or deformed, it is the utmost that can be expected; and even this judgment, a person, so unpracticed, will be apt to deliver with great hesitation and reserve. But allow him to acquire experience in those objects, his feeling becomes more exact […]

Linger on, and rotate, the diamond. In addition to practice, Hume asserts that one must also learn to slow down and look at things from multiple angles:

[B]efore we can give judgment on any work of importance, it will be […] requisite […] that [it…] be more than once perused by us, and surveyed in different lights with attention and deliberation. There is a flutter or hurry of thought which attends the first perusal of any piece, and which confounds the genuine sentiment of beauty. The relation of the parts is not discerned: The true characters of style are little distinguished: The several perfections and defects seem wrapped up in a species of confusion, and present themselves indistinctly to the imagination. Not to mention, that there is a species of beauty, which, as it is florid and superficial, pleases at first; but being found incompatible with a just expression either of reason or passion, soon palls upon the taste, and is then rejected with disdain, at least rated at a much lower value.

Comparison and contrast. Hume emphasizes comparison as another way of honing one’s aesthetic sense; that is, noticing differences in the degrees of beauty by asking the following question: this object of nature, art, or literature is beautiful or powerful as compared to what?

It is impossible to continue in the practice of contemplating any order of beauty, without being frequently obliged to form comparisons between the several species and degrees of excellence, and estimating their proportion to each other.

And refined comparisons, obviously, require exposing yourself to a lot of aesthetic things so that you become conversant in the varieties of aesthetic experience. Only then can you render the highest judgments based on the highest models:

A great inferiority of beauty gives pain to a person conversant in the highest excellence of the kind, and is for that reason pronounced a deformity.

If you only have a limited experience with beauty, “the most finished object” you know of “is naturally supposed to have reached the pinnacle of perfection,” but once you become “accustomed to see, and examine, and weigh the several performances, admired in different ages and nations,” then you can competently “rate the merits of a work exhibited” and “assign its proper rank among the productions of genius.”

Hume in a nutshell. In short, for Hume beauty is objective and pervasive in the world, but subtle and subject to degrees, and our failure to perceive it accurately and in its fullness can be accounted for by numerous factors:

  • We may be distracted or otherwise ill-tuned or damaged in our faculties.
  • We may have prejudices born of habits of attention, temperament, and culture.
  • We may have naturally diverse and calibrated senses that notice some aspects of beauty, but not others.

Hume offers the following to those who wish to cultivate their receptivity to, and discernment of, beauty:

  • Practice close reading and seeing.
  • When practicing reading and seeing, slow down, look repeatedly, and take views from multiple angles.
  • When contemplating an object of beauty, compare and rate it in relation to other objects of beauty.

There’s so much beauty in the world. How much of it are we noticing?

A Wittgensteinian critique. A 21st century person, reflecting on Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ideas surrounding language games, might wonder whether Hume has confused criteria for beauty with beauty itself. She might wonder whether what Hume calls a dullness or insensitivity to beauty is, to the contrary, just a dullness or insensitivity to a beauty criteria list, perhaps not even explicitly stated, but nevertheless present, applied to objects of contemplation. The Wittgensteinian critic might also doubt the wisdom of Hume’s overlay of an aesthetic metalanguage onto all the other aesthetic languages at work in the world, as when Hume writes that the widely read and well-traveled critic, by long practice, becomes “accustomed to see, and examine, and weigh the several performances, admired in different ages and nations.” Any such meta-evaluative weighing of diverse aesthetic traditions, on a Wittgensteinian critique, is not really closing in on the fullest apprehension of beauty that can be attained, but is, rather, yet another spell-casting enactment of a notational language game. (“Whatever you can do, Hume can do meta.”)

And Wittgenstein can do meta-meta.

One person’s notation is another person’s experience of a hijacking.

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Donald Trump’s Loaded Gun–and Emily Dickinson’s

I’d like to offer up Emily Dickinson’s poem #764—her “Loaded Gun” poem—as a trope for Donald Trump’s (thus far successful) hack of the Republican Party—and his threat to do the same to the American presidency. I’ll deal with the poem, stanza by stanza, and put a contemporary political spin on it.

My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun –

In Corners – till a Day

The Owner passed – identified –

And carried Me away –

For this first stanza, let’s start with the narrator. Who is she?

She’s a person in the grip of loss, grief, and rage–“a Loaded Gun”–and she’s offering her conversion testimony to a congregation. She’s bearing witness.

And notice that the narrator testifies to having once been an outcast, without use, “In Corners – till a Day / The Owner passed – identified – / And carried Me away.”

To be carried away suggests religious ecstasy: she was lost, but now found; blind, but now sees.

We are thus dealing with a person in a cultish relationship to her “Owner”; she is someone akin to the Trump enthusiast.

And now We roam in Sovereign Woods –

And now We hunt the Doe –

And every time I speak for Him

The Mountains straight reply –

The Owner in this second stanza has given the narrator purpose–but it is a rough-edged purpose, and so we are witness here, in the hunting of a female deer, to the death of gentleness.

And in unhindered roaming in “Sovereign Woods,” we have libertarian freedom accompanied by hardness of command, control, and ownership. Don’t tread on me. 

So we half expect this to be the realm where Dick Cheney–a Trump endorser–shoots somebody in the face.

This second stanza is thus about the romance of being a free individual; an individual away from the city, independent of all human governing, save for the governance of the Sovereign, who is obeyed.

Notice also the insularity in this second stanza; the blissful indifference to the fact that outside voices and perspectives are lacking. The sounding out in the poem takes place, as it were, in a narcissistic fishbowl, and “for Him” alone–and certainly never against him. It is a firing off, but there is no reciprocation or pushback; no listening or yielding to others. The voice is monological, singular; not diverse; not dialogical.

So there is no room for doubt here, only certainty. And in this echo chamber the mountains function as high walls that keep out contrarian voices. They repeat back and affirm what the believer and Master have declared (“The Mountains straight reply”).

The heavens and earth declare the glory of the Master.

So this is Rush Limbaugh Land, with mega dittos reverberating. By long conditioning, Limbaugh, like John the Baptist, has prepared the way for the Lord Donald Trump. (“There’s a messiah born every minute.”)

And do I smile, such cordial light

Upon the Valley glow –

It is as a Vesuvian face

Had let its pleasure through –

In this third stanza we have our Tangerine Messiah uninterrupted, his “Vesuvian face” flush with recent eruption. No political correctness here. Make way for Dionysus as President! Let his “pleasure through.” The Master is flush with passion–as are his followers.

And in the next stanza–the fourth stanza–the narrator participates in the Master’s power, which we can read in 2016 as a phallic symbol for Trump’s many towers. The narrator belongs to something greater than herself, and concludes that it’s better to share the hard head of this Master than succumb to the complexities of an ill-defined, squishy plush–a symbol of our multi-cultural, multi-racial America:

And when at Night – Our good Day done –

I guard My Master’s Head –

’Tis better than the Eider Duck’s

Deep Pillow – to have shared –

“Don’t let me get too deep,” sang Edie Brickell (ironically) in the 1990s–but this might make for a serious theme song at Trump rallies.

And perhaps, on first reading, this fourth stanza actually sounds nice to youeven idyllicyet when one looks again, one sees the beginnings of trouble: an excess of zeal that cannot be sustained. The narrator is awake. But she’s always awake. She’s on guard 24/7, policing borders. As in the biblical formula, “no rest for the wicked,” this stanza depicts the narrator as suffering the fate of the wicked–and so she is hapless, and therefore most to be pitied.

Lack of rest and excesses of seriousness absent the least irony. These are symptoms of both psyche and cult gone bad. They are signs of paranoia brewing. Vigilance never lets up.

To foe of His – I’m deadly foe –

None stir the second time –

On whom I lay a Yellow Eye –

Or an emphatic Thumb –

In stanza five the narrator’s problem is made explicit–if not to the narrator, at least to us. What started as a proud confession of conversion has lapsed into the fiercest and crassest Manichean dualism: “To foe of His–I’m deadly foe.” No argument. No thought. Only fight. A wall.

We thus reach the tragic and climactic final stanza–stanza six–in which the testimony of religious conversion has proved itself a trap:

Though I than He – may longer live

He longer must – than I –

For I have but the power to kill,

Without – the power to die –

Giving herself over to the Master has proved to be the narrator’s undoing. The last stanza becomes, not a testimony to a salvation, but a plea for a salvation–salvation from the authoritarian mode of salvation.

It’s buyer’s remorse. The narrator has succumbed to the authoritarian temptation, and now regrets it. She has outsourced her agency to another, exchanging her very human Hamlet Syndrome (to be or not to be, to do or not to do, to think or not to think) for the singular and solidifying option of being akin to stone or metal: to be without the threat of substantial change. Call this latter state: the Grand Inquisitor Syndrome (after the authoritarian religious apologist in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov). 

The narrator in Dickinson’s poem has denied her independent agency and adopted a rigid, defensive, and nostalgic relation to her own identity. She has exchanged her freedom for a lie that comforts–and for belonging. And she has reserved her inner power, not for love and change, but to battle and lunge on behalf of the Master’s cause. She has thus surrendered, in her hysterical excess of armoring and the taking up of arms, her power for metamorphosis; her power “to die.”

When in the grip of Grand Inquisitor Syndrome, discussion ceases. There is no grappling with plurality or complexity. Problems are solved only in appearance, artificially–or by brute force and exclusion.

But now the narrator finds herself trapped. Her avoidance of the existential pain of living with her freedom, being a Hamlet navigating a complex world, has led her to an uncompromising and unbending relation to that world. She has been hoisted by her own petard. There’s no space for new life if she cannot, like Hamlet, Jacob-wrestle with time, complexity, competing goods, diverse relations, and death (change). To escape these into a con-man’s fantasies and half-baked and simplistic ideas, is to live out a kind of living death, akin to being a vampire; akin to following The Grand Inquisitor (who gives people miracle, mystery, and authority).

So here’s what the Trumpsters, akin to the Loaded Gun narrator, are not facing squarely: a shifting reality. In 2016, that shifting reality is this: America is too diverse for European-style ethnic nationalism and isolationism to prevail in its politics. Whites in America have to live with blacks (and Asians and Hispanics) exactly as Jews have to learn to live with Palestinians. And global trade isn’t going away. Americans have to trade with the Chinese. And Christians have to live alongside Muslims and atheists. And let’s not forget climate change. It can’t be ignored or denied anymore.

If one can’t face the complexities of these contemporary realities; if one is going to build walls and latch onto confidence men with simple answers, then the consequence is the stalling out of new life in yourself and your community. You’ll find that you’ve sealed your fate, as it were, in the amber of your own nostalgia. What you took to be salvation will prove to be yet another symptom of your being stuck–and when the fantasy fails, you won’t know who you are any more, potentially reinforcing an even deeper resentment and cynicism.

I’m thinking now of something Sartre wrote, and so will conclude with it. It comes from his little book, Anti-Semite and Jew (1946). Like Dickinson’s poem, Sartre’s book has many resonances with our contemporary political scene in the United States. Trump’s brand of white ethnic smugness and nationalism, where Muslims and Hispanics have been substituted out for the early twentieth century antisemite’s “Jewish problem,” is unsettling to witness in American politics (to say the least), and the below quote is thus apposite to our collective moment, appearing at the very end of Sartre’s first chapter:

Anti-Semitism, in short, is fear of the human condition. The anti-Semite is a man who wishes to be pitiless stone, a furious torrent, a devastating thunderbolt–anything except a man.

That is, anything except Hamlet (Shakespeare’s most vividly realized and complex man). To cease to be a Hamlet means that one prefers, to grappling with complexity and compromise, becoming instead a “pitiless stone” or metal tool–a Loaded Gun–in service to simplistic final solutions that are driven, not by reason, but passion, and by a cult of personality (a charismatic man, governed by his passions, who attracts a mass following). Life is just simpler that way.

Until you wake up.

I suspect that, after election day in November of this year, a lot of people will be waking up, as if from a hangover, realizing that Trump wasn’t a Magician after all; that the nation’s diversity, complexity, and problems are still present the day after–and Hillary Clinton is now President-elect.

It will be as if they had believed in an end time prophecy that failed to come to pass–and yet they still have to go on living in the real world. Prepare for lots of rationalizing; lots of cognitive dissonance. But the fever of enthrallment to Trump’s Vesuvian face will have passed. Maybe it will pass to another. Maybe this is a new pattern to our politics in America. Maybe some future Trump, in a bleaker economic moment than the merely dyspeptic one we know in 2016, will win.

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They Picked Mussolini

After Donald Trump’s win in Indiana, setting him on a glide path to the Republican nomination, America feels different this morning.

Out of seventeen candidates, Republican voters narrowed the field to (as Bill Maher observed a few weeks back) Joe McCarthy and Mussolini–and they’ve picked Mussolini.

And Republicans who sounded steadfast against Donald Trump–staffers at the National Review, William Kristol, Mona Charen, etc.–are now wavering, leaving it to the rest of us–Democrats and Independents–to stop Trump.

I agree with Andrew Sullivan that Donald Trump is making a bid to play the role of Dear Leader; an American Putin; that he represents an “extinction level event” for American republicanism.

Those of us who do not want our country trending toward Putin-style nationalism with an erratic hysteric at the wheel need to work for Hillary’s candidacy, not just vote for her in November. This is no time for standing on sidelines.

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Donald Meets Harriet

Donald Trump doesn’t want Harriet Tubman on the $20. (Of course, he wants himself on the $20).

Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump said Thursday that abolitionist Harriet Tubman is ‘fantastic’ but she shouldn’t replace former President Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill. He…
NBCNEWYORK.COM
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Writing or Art? Mel Bochner’s “LANGUAGE IS NOT TRANSPARENT” (1970)

Is it art? Is this the sort of art one passes by impatiently as not really art?

Notice that it has no conventional images in it, such as, say, a Madonna with child. Where Mary and the baby Jesus might have been represented in medieval art, we’ve just got words on a black background. Doesn’t that make this, not visual art, but writing? This seems like something more Protestant and iconoclastic than Catholic and iconic.

But let’s be patient here and look. Linger a bit. Let this curious thing speak.

The piece is titled, “LANGUAGE IS NOT TRANSPARENT.” It consists of “chalk on paint on wall,” and is 72 x 48 inches–the size and width of a large man. This means that, should you stand before it in real time, the experience might be akin to facing a headless man with broad shoulders.

Mel Bochner is the artist. He executed it 46 years ago, in 1970, when he was thirty years old. As of this writing, in 2016, he’s still alive, living in New York, aged 76, hopefully with his own head still about him.

Now, if Mel Bochner had been born in 1340 instead of 1940, and this was a depiction of a Madonna with child, we might start our reflections on his work by noticing signs of luster pointing to the divine (gold leaf in the Mother and Son’s holy halos, etc.)–but we’re in the 21st century, and so, to access what he has done here, maybe our first move ought to be, not consultation with a theologian and fashioner of plated gold, but with a psychotherapist and neuroscientist.

The seven primal emotional systems in the mammalian brain. I don’t have any psychotherapists or neuroscientists lying around my library, but what I do have is a book co-written by one of each: The Archaeology of Mind (Norton 2012), by Lucy Biven (a psychotherapist) and Jaak Panksepp (a neuroscientist). According to their book, there are seven primal emotional systems that evolution has placed in the mammalian brain. Rats have these systems, cats have them, humans have them, and they are:

(a) the seeking system (sometimes called the reward system, which manifests in affect terms as desire; enthusiasm; curiosity; excitement to discover the truth and learn or get new things)
(b) the rage system (manifestations of affect: aversion; anger; being “pissed off”)
(c) the fear system (anxiety)
(d) the lust system (horniness; activates the opioid reward system)
(e) the care system (tenderness; love; empathy)
(f) the panic system (loss, grief, mourning, frustration, loneliness, sadness)
(g) the play system (joy, imagination)

We have other brain systems, obviously, such as homeostatic systems regulating hunger, thirst, and breathing. And we have executive functions in our neocortex, giving us powers of speech and distancing skills (irony, mindfulness), but these seven systems constitute the subcortical foundation for our affective (emotional) states. They make up the template or basic alphabet on which we (and other mammals, and, to some degree, birds) construct emotional experiences. It is these that potentially get stimulated when we look at art (or anything else, for that matter).

So the first question we might bring to Bochner’s, “LANGUAGE IS NOT TRANSPARENT,” is this: What primal emotional systems are being activated when we view this piece of art? Let’s view it another time before answering.

6 out of 7 ain’t bad. Bochner’s “LANGUAGE IS NOT TRANSPARENT” makes us everything but horny. It doesn’t activate our lust system, but the other six seem to get some stimulation.

So let’s start with the brain’s seeking system. Clearly, the sentence in the art itself–LANGUAGE IS NOT TRANSPARENT–is inviting us to look again, and so it activates, if we’re willing to accept its implied invitation to linger with it, our system that attempts to locate sense and meaning. And the words, in puzzling us, implicitly invite us to play with them (activating our play system).

So that’s two emotional brain systems activated: seeking and play. But the sentence also primes us to loneliness, an aspect of our panic system, as when a little bird cries out to its absent mother. To say that “language is not transparent” suggests that real, direct contact and communication with others is, at best, problematic. There’s always going to be something between us and others: interpretation. We are cut off from direct contact with our ground of being and others, as is this piece of art. The gap between floor and sentence, message and other, language and art, content and style, matter and manner is the same ironic gap that is between the fingers of Adam and God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel–and, like Bochner’s black paint, our lives bleed into this gap.

And two of the words–NOT and PARENT–and the affix TRANS–all in close proximity to one another on a wall (which is a cold and hard thing, large and resistant to pushback), subtly activates our anxieties–our fear system–surrounding change (trans) and the Freudian superego (parents and the prohibitions implied in not).

And speaking of parents, though the artist could not have anticipated this effect on 21st century viewers, who doesn’t get a twinge of contemporary gender and sexual politics firecrackering off of the word “transparent”? Language is not (your) trans-parent. Language is not like your contemporary ideal of the kind, transgender fairy godmother that you can know intimately, understand, reliably work with, and loves you exactly for who you are. Instead, language’s manic shifting confuses you as to who you are; it’s more ephemeral, distant, unpredictable, disappointing, out of control, inhuman, and non-nurturing than you might want.

Notice also that Bochner’s letters are in caps–suggestive of shouting–but in a childlike or adolescent hand, written in chalk on black paint, implying both a chalkboard and school (and all its forms of abuse, authority, and mystification). These caps (and caps also suggest bullets) subtly trigger our empathy for youth oppressed by adult authority and feeling pent-up rage, as in Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.” So the caring system is also being activated, as well as the rage system.

Miracle, mystery, authority–and the language delusion. So a child, we are made to imagine, was forced to stand at a place like this and write words implying clarity, permanence of meaning, and certainty, under the command of an adult–and now this is the child’s retort as an ironic adult artist: “LANGUAGE IS NOT TRANSPARENT,” and therefore not eternal; not transhistorical. It is subject to interpretation; it does not speak for itself. The clarity sought, for instance, at the chalkboard in grammar exercises, with their right and wrong answers, renders the spell of language and its vulnerability to evolution invisible. “Language is not transparent” becomes a trope for the child in the crowd who says (or writes as graffiti on a wall), “The emperor has no clothes.” The clarity and stability of achieved meaning is actually as mortal and illusory as the rest of us, and will be undone by space and time.

Bochner’s piece might thus be read as a summation of what was digested by philosophers and cultural observers over the hundred years from about 1870 to 1970, when advertising took over walls across the world’s urban areas: words are not special, confined to places like libraries and the Bible, but prolific, cheap, and manipulative; they are not the conveyors of real essences and genuine presences (communication of the Word made flesh), but illusory essences and presences. Their meanings are slick; slippery. Like Blake’s image of British imperialism in his poem, “London,” words can be seen as part of the violence of history, running like blood down palace walls.

My God, why have you forsaken me? So what is written on the wall (as in, “It is written,…”) is actually dependent on something that is coming undone. The condition for the existence of the message itself–in this case, the black sheet, similar in form to an 8.5″ x 11″ sheet of paper–has been pierced and torn, and is now bleeding away. Like Christ, the Word made flesh, it’s broken and hanging.

Bochner’s work is a crucifixion.

And a metamorphosis. For the writing on the wall, O Nebuchadnezzar, has taken on a new life beyond the control of its creator. It has become a soldier in Nietzsche’s moving army of metaphors; a Frankenstein; Kafka’s insect, perhaps a millipede. Notice that the dripping streaks function as stalks accompanied by hints of little feet.

Night of the Living Dead. So though we have a crucifixion here, this is not also a resurrection in the sense of life overcoming death. This broken thing with writing tattooed on it is rather a zombie; the zombie of modernism, carrying its central and sobering insight that language is not transparent. It is the culminating insight of 100 years of advertising and rethinking the nature of words in the light of Darwin, relentless time, and the death of God. What we have here is not a bleeding Lazarus come from the tomb, but a bleeding Don Draper, advertising man. This art is fresh from Plato’s cave, declaring that we have all been under the spell of shadows, and things are not what they appear to be, as when Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello says cryptically, “I am not what I am.” This trans-parent is not your mother, but Jacques Lacan’s inhuman Other, the Real. It does not transport one to truth, but to an aporia, an impasse of speech and writing–which means an impasse to the confident progress of one’s own life. It is the inhuman Other, unleashed from the plain intention of its author into a life of its own; a life in the realm of uncertain time.

And in gazing on it, it’s entering your space.  Look again.

Does transparency make for visibility or invisibility? Notice that one cannot see through the black of the image, and this reinforces the claim of the sentence written on the body of it, that language is not transparent. Yet the words themselves are in white, cutting through black, thereby exposing, in their very inscription, the white wall behind it. One can see through the words to the white wall. So wouldn’t this make the words written here akin to a Cretan saying, “All Cretans are liars”? Have we reached yet another aporia, an impasse, akin to a sign or message one might encounter in a Kafka novel?

Here’s the conundrum: Can words really achieve direct contact with that to which they are supposed to point–or not? The words here, after all, wave off their own transparency, even as one is looking right through them to the wall behind.

So which is it? Are words transparent or not? And the very term transparency is itself perplexing, for it suggests something at once present to the eye and invisible. When one says, “I am being transparent,” is one making a claim to being visible or invisible? Transparency is a “thing” (persumably), yet not exactly there. You can see through it–like a ghost, like God–and so it is not there–and there, at the same time. A ghost bird. Like the Holy Spirit.

So is Bochner’s image now a counter to the dove at Jesus’s baptism, suggestive of a black wing proclaiming a counter-gospel of the Word, climbing upward, trailing blood?

The 1. And let’s not ignore the number 1 in the art piece, for it evokes monotheism, phallocentrism, and the beginning of a series, as in a series of demands, like the Ten Commandments. The 1 announces that we are about to be scolded, warded off, or lectured.

And yet the 1 is placed in this piece of art, not at the art’s center, but at a margin–and that margin actually constitutes the center for all writing (at least writing that is done left to right). The 1’s placement locates the beginning of writing (the upper left hand of a page). It delivers itself up as the first inscription of an author; a parent; a mysterious and menacing deity stirring an inky void.

The first commandment of this Other who is not your mother is masculine in tone, adamant, confident: LANGUAGE IS NOT TRANSPARENT. No doubt here. Its other possibility is rejected emphatically (language is transparent). Its black-and-white mentality announces a dogmatic and dominating deity–yet also an opaque one.

And there are two very tiny periods in this proclamation–one after the 1, and one after TRANSPARENT, acting like bullet holes in support of those capped letters, and this brings our attention to the scattered bullet-like holes at the tearing point, bleeding ink.

So this is the line of dissolve, dissolution, running; a time of undoing; of Dali’s melting clocks. Here’s the image again.

And here are Dali’s clocks.

The Persistence of Memory.jpg

Seeing that vs. seeing as: aspect seeing. One more way to look at Bochner’s art piece is in light of aspect seeing. Aspect seeing is something that fascinated the great philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, his favorite example being this rabbit-duck image:

So which is it, a rabbit or duck? Wittgenstein saw this image as illustrating an important distinction between seeing that vs. seeing as, and such a distinction goes well with the idea that things and language do not speak for themselves—they do not transparently mean one thing, which they announce of themselves. Rather, they are in need of interpretation, and are thus connected to everything else in the cosmos (for the truth is the whole). And therefore, to echo Walt Whitman’s description of himself, they are “large,” containing “multitudes” of aspects to be noticed, interpretations to be proferred, and emphases to be placed.

Here’s an example of Walt Whitman thinking large about the grass, not seeing it like American conservatives see the Constitution (as univocal and speaking for itself, and in possession of an original intent not to be played with). Whitman sees the grass as something subject to interpretation; to free association; to transformation via the human metaphorical imagination:

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full

hands;

How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it

is any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful

green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,

A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,

Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we

may see and remark, and say Whose?

Or I guess the grass is itself a child. . . .the produced babe

of the vegetation.

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,

And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow

zones,

Growing among black folks as among white,

Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the

same, I receive them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves. Isn’t that a gorgeous line? And notice that Whitman does with the grass what this blog post does with Bochner’s art piece, turning it about as one might turn a diamond, noticing different refractions of light coming off of it (now let’s see it this way, now that way)–akin to the free associating done when gazing upon a Rorschach card.

Rorschach blot 01.jpg

Is it a bat? A pelvic girdle? Depending on your contingent psychology and history, you might have been primed for any number of things to leap out at you on the first glance. And more would jump out at you with some lingering. And should someone point out just one way of seeing it–“It’s definitely a bat!”–you might well object, saying, “There are many ways of looking at it.”

So it is with Bochner’s piece of modern art. The pleasure is in the unhurried lingering.

Bochner’s piece invites delight in play; delight in its mix of ambiguities, form, words, and randomness–the numerous ways it submits itself to seeing as. I’ve suggested for this piece, among others, a man without a head, a chalkboard, a crucifixion, a black wing, and a zombie. I’ll offer another: a magician’s table, with the spell-casting effects of language exposed.

This latter way of seeing implies that language’s seductive magic is protected behind a black table cloth of essentialist rhetoric and authority. The art piece’s single sentence, scrawled like graffiti on the cloth itself, then functions, like Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit, at one and the same time, to expose language’s trick and to protest against it (“language is not transparent”). Lastly, it suggests Toto from the Wizard of Oz having become a bulldog, not drawing the table’s drapery back, but biting it off and chomping it down.

Art and pareidolia. From the vantage of science and critical thinking, pareidolia is bad. You don’t want to wrongly attribute to things properties that aren’t objectively there, such as seeing Jesus in a piece of toast, or alien monuments on Mars that are in fact the products of angle and shadow.

But with art, association and metaphor–“This is that!”–are, in many respects, the ballgame. It’s okay to play with art: to engage in forms of interpretation that might amount, in other contexts, to pareidolia and overinterpretation. Art, after all, is located in the world, and absent a full and final interpretation of the world–which only a transcendent being outside of time, like God, could possibly know or offer up–the world is in need of perspective, and perspectives are naturally prolific for beings like us, for we shift in space and time. Our lives are like that face on Mars. They are seen and experienced at one angle in one moment, at another angle in the next. We are positioned in the universe to apprehend angles. We are not gods, beyond space and time. So there’s always some new vantage from which we are looking, and this vantage arrives afresh in each moment, as the sun when it moves over the surface of Mars, casting its novel shadows.

So it’s okay to see more in a piece of art than an artist like Bochner originally knew or intended. The artist, after all, launched his art from a vantage–a port–and sent it into the Sea of Time. He could not possibly know where it might drift from there in its meaning. Frank Kermode, the literary critic, once argued in The New Republic that this is perhaps the central insight of postmodernism: that there is always more in a work than an artist or author knows or intends. So what is said about an artifact or text reveals as much about the interpreter, and the interpreter’s concerns, as about the artifact or text itself.

This is not to say that interpretation is wide open and infinite, indifferent to reality, context, or data. Vantages, after all, appear as epiphanies of interpretation in relation to facts or factoids (things taken to be facts) on the ground. It matters, for instance, what the artist says (if anything) about his or her own work. That can narrow interpretation. And it matters what we think we know–and what we put in the category of not knowing.

Any room for hope? In terms of vantage then, this has been, on balance, a bleak interpretation of what can certainly be treated plausibly as a bleak piece of art–and yet there is room for flipping the energies here to hope, for while it is true that time is a kind of crucifixion, and there is no resurrection in Bochner’s piece in the sense of life ever overcoming death, it is in the realm of time, as Jacques Derrida was fond of emphasizing, that possibility nevertheless survives. The future is uncertain, and language is uncertain, but in that very uncertainty is the space for choice, preserved memory, love, imagination, progress, justice, life–and hope. If Bochner has given us an image of the inhuman Other, unleashed like a Golem from the plain intention of its author, into a life of its own–he has also given us a reminder that it is in time, not abstract eternity, where blood can actually flow, for good and ill; where a gap between ground and flight, past and future, language and meaning, open up and make way, like John the Baptist, for the announcement of fresh-coming existence; where memory, imagination, and interpretation can actually have a chance to survive–and surprise us.

So life provides no guarantees–but, behold! In this piece of art is the declaration of the Baptizer (Saussure?) of the arrival of our ironic modern trinity (signifier, signified, referent), ready for judgment and interpretation in time. So let the Wittgensteinian (language) games begin? Let the wine, blood, and words flow? Go with the flow?

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Miracle, Mystery, and Authority in Real Time

Father Zossima and the Grand Inquisitor meet the 21st century in real time.

A yoga studio infused with a strong caffeine dose of old-school mysticism and guru deference has turned (surprise!) cultish. Here is an especially amusing paragraph from the below article:

Perhaps Faurot’s case will cut through some of the self-mythologizing grandiosity that has sprung up around a place that is, ultimately, just a yoga studio. That, says Kaminoff, would represent genuine spiritual development. “ ‘What the fuck was I thinking?’ is probably the mantra that some of these people need to be repeating to themselves,” he says.

Aspiring teachers at Jivamukti, the downtown Manhattan yoga studio famous for its sweaty, ecstatic classes and celebrity clientele, quickly get used to …
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Feminism for Beginners

Two similes used by Mary Wollstonecraft. Feminism, the movement for women’s equality, has as one of its early taproots a book written by Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1799) titled, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and in the fourth chapter of that book are two especially thought-stimulating similes: (1) women, historically, have been like “the feathered race” confined to cages; and (2) women are treated by men as “smiling flowers.”

Women are like birds in cages. Likening women’s lives spent in their homes to birds held in cages, Wollstonecraft puts her first simile this way: “Confined then in cages like the feathered race, they have nothing to do but to plume themselves, and stalk with mock majesty from perch to perch” (para. 11).

Much is implied here. The caged bird is an object of display, not a subject that freely acts in the world; as such, it fails to exercise and develop what is most basic to its nature as a bird, its wings. Likewise, a woman’s most basic nature is, like that of men, her reason. And so Wollstonecraft writes this: “The power of generalizing ideas, of drawing comprehensive conclusions from individual observations, is the only acquirement, for an immortal being, that really deserves the name of knowledge. […] This power has not only been denied to women; but writers have insisted that it is inconsistent, with a few exceptions, with their sexual character” (para. 5-6). In other words, reason is the power to conceptualize (to map; to categorize; to analogize; to name and frame the world), and so the traditional and practical education of girls for (conventional) women’s work is simply not sufficient for Wollstonecraft. Absent intellectual education—training in such things as historical analysis, close reading, critical thinking, naming and framing—a woman’s most basic nature as a human being goes undeveloped. She is like a bird absent the use of her wings.

“Smiling flowers.” Contra the prevailing view of her male contemporaries, Wollstonecraft asserts that women are not “smiling flowers” meant by God or nature to focus primarily upon adornment and pleasure (as opposed to intellectual work and action). To reduce women to “smiling flowers” robs “the whole sex of its dignity” (para. 4). In a note to chapter four, she homes-in on one of her contemporaries, the female poet Anna Barbauld, wondering how she could write, as a woman herself, such female-degrading lines as these:

‘Pleasure’s the portion of th’ inferiour kind;

But glory, virtue, Heaven for man design’d.’

And (comparing men to trees; women to flowers):

To loftier forms are rougher tasks assign’d;

The sheltering oak resists the stormy wind,

The tougher yew repels invading foes,

And the tall pine for future navies grows;

But this soft family, to cares unknown,

Were born for pleasure and delight ALONE.

Gay without toil, and lovely without art,

They spring to CHEER the sense, and GLAD the heart,

Nor blush, my fair, to own you copy these;

Your BEST, your SWEETEST empire is—to PLEASE.’

Wollstonecraft’s retort to Barbauld is: “So the men tell us; but virtue must be acquired by rough toils, and useful struggles with worldly cares.

So this is Wollstonecraft’s two chief theses: (1) women throughout history have been infantilized by men, and thereby blocked in their human development; and (2) virtues, such as reason and courage, have been checked in women by a lack of opportunities to exercise them out in the world.

For Wollstonecraft, then, the problem of women’s inequality is twofold: (1) women are treated as means to men’s ends rather than as ends for themselves; and (2) by intellectual education, habits, and social opportunity men tend to develop their human wings—their powers of reason, imagination, choice, and action—while women tend not to. It is Wollstonecraft’s intellectual battle against some of the sexist commonplaces and assumptions of her time that helps initiate feminism.

Why no female Shakespeares? A hundred and thirty years after A Vindication of the Rights of Women, the novelist Virginia Woolf, in her nonfiction book, A Room of One’s Own, asks why there have been no female Shakespeares. As response, Woolf adopts Wollstonecraft’s framing of the obstacles facing women—and women with intellectual and creative ambitions, in particular—arguing that the world has yet to produce a female Shakespeare because women are simply not socialized to intellectual production; they are not equally educated with men; nor do they, as a matter of common habit, withdraw from their traditional work roles into “rooms of their own” (places of solitude where original and creative thoughts can actually come to them).

Women also do not tend to take, as men characteristically do, the products of their creative solitude out into the world in agonistic competition. While, for example, Shakespeare left Stratford for the city of London to make his mark as a dramatist, had he a sister, she would have stayed home—and been expected to stay home.

Woolf’s manner of writing about women’s issues is thus very much akin to Wollstonecraft’s: it is representative of what has come to be known as “first-wave feminism”—the wave of feminism started by early feminist writers like Wollstonecraft and that was chiefly characterized by 18th century Anglo-French Enlightenment assumptions about the supreme value of masculine modes and styles of reasoning, creative production, and worldly action.

Moving beyond Wollstonecraft and Woolf. If, in the 18th century, Wollstonecraft was focused on improving female education (“the first step to form a being advancing gradually towards perfection”); and 19th century feminists (such as John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor) were focused on civil rights and economic equality for women; and feminists in the first half of the 20th century were focused on voting rights and the paucity of “female Shakespeares,” it was women after World War II who initiated what has come to be known as “second-wave feminism,” complicating first-wave feminist assumptions.

No woman is an island. In first-wave feminism, it was enough to argue for women’s legal equality with men in terms of the vote, access to education, property rights, and the freedom to choose whether or not to work in or outside the home. Beyond this, the general premise was that the gender chips must fall where they may. A minority of superior women would rise to the occasion of their hard-won equality and freedom, but the majority would no doubt continue to choose traditional roles for themselves (wife, mother, and homemaker as opposed to, say, politician, scientist, dramatist, or factory worker).

Second-wave feminism noticed the good aspects of first-wave feminism (as a movement for simple legal equality and access), and advanced it, but it also noticed the bad, and brought relentlessly to the foreground of consciousness the fact that women are not islands, either psychologically or socially (they are not free-floating thinkers absent material needs, emotions, inner conflicts, an unconscious, and a body; they are not free of the social collective; they are not free of history). And so, in spite of certain legal victories, patriarchy-dominated assumptions about reason, social arrangements, institutions, and history persist. And these assumptions are all too frequently rigged against women, setting them at odds with one another, putting them in double binds, and placing them generally at serious disadvantages in relation to men.

Follow structures to their radicals (their roots). Second-wave feminism, then, focused on the structures underlying relations, which are often structures of domination, and how those structures function in time and space to bind women materially and psychologically in spite of legal equality. Second-wave feminism shifted emphasis from the bourgeois liberal sorts of “rational actor” concerns of Wollstonecraft, Mill, and Woolf, and toward historical, sociological, and psychological analysis; i.e of the sorts of analysis practiced by structuralist thinkers like Karl Marx (proposing class struggle as the underlying dynamic structure of history) and Sigmund Freud (proposing the id, ego, and superego as the underlying dynamic structure of the psyche). Depending on context, second-wave feminists both deployed and critiqued the arguments of such male thinkers, and became associated with various schools of thought (“Marxist feminists,” “psychoanalytic feminists,” “existentialist feminists,” etc.). Second-wave feminists thus sought to identify and understand the systems of thought and culture sustaining sexism and patriarchy (rule by men), and their critiques became increasingly radical, attempting to locate the most fundamental roots of women’s oppression (from the Late Latin radicalis, root).

Woman as Other to man’s Absolute. An example of a feminist author proposing a psychological structure at work in the functioning of sexism is Simone de Beauvoir in her book, The Second Sex. This groundbreaking text initiated second-wave feminism, and, when it first appeared, it was placed by the Vatican on its list of Forbidden Books to Catholics. In the book, Beauvoir argues that men, psychologically, position themselves as the norm—the normative subjects—of existence, at human life’s center, with women placed at its margins, unequal to men in essence, a supplement to men and defined in relation to men. Man is essence, woman is shadow and inessential; man is indispensable to the definition of what it means to be human, woman dispensable. He is essential, she is difference. Woman “is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential, as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute—she is the Other.” (Think of Eve in relation to Adam in the Bible, how Adam was made first, and not Eve; and how Eve is said to have been taken from Adam—from Adam’s rib.)

The politics of reproduction, not production. An example of a second-wave feminist author making use of Marxist modes of structural analysis is Shulamith Firestone. In her book, The Dialectic of Sex (1970), she argues that while the struggle between the rich and middle classes vs. the working poor and unemployed is indeed a driving force of history—the dialectical struggle of classes in thesis, antithesis, and synthesis—it is not, as Marx thought, the ur-struggle (the first struggle; the beginning of all struggles). That distinction goes, by Firestone’s reckoning, to the divergence of interests between male and female, the first class division. Before there was the politics of production—Who shall control the factories; the means of economic production?—there was the politics of reproduction—Who shall control women’s bodies; the means of biological reproduction?

Firestone’s claim is that men have always attempted to set the terms of female reproduction and that it is “the first division of labor” that “developed into the [broader] class system.” And so she writes that a feminist analysis of history “seeks the ultimate cause and the great moving power of all historical events in the dialectic of sex: the division of society into two distinct biological classes for procreative reproduction, and the struggles of these classes with one another; in the changes in the modes of marriage, reproduction and child care created by these struggles; […]” (quoted in Tong’s Feminist Thought, 73).

Alienation. Another example where Marxist thought influences second-wave feminist thought is in its emphasis on the concept of alienation (estrangement from one’s deepest nature or purposes, or from others). Marx derived this concept from the philosophy of Friedrich Hegel, who believed in ultimate Truth; that we are heading toward it; and that—because we haven’t reached it yet—we are all estranged from it. Human history, for Hegel, is a seemingly endless, uneasy, and unstable dialectic (argumentative, agonistic) movement, on an upward-spiraling (metaphorical) staircase, toward ultimate Truth, one step following the other, where a thesis (an assertion of will or an idea) encounters an antithesis (a counter assertion or contradiction) that leads to a synthesis (a fresh consensus which becomes the new thesis for facing new resistances, and so on).

Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic. For Hegel, partial truth, being unstable, not the whole truth, gives way in time to greater truth—to greater revelations of reality through time—and this process results in winners and losers all along the way. Hegel called this ongoing historical interaction of winners and losers the Master-Slave dialectic. In the struggle for existence, will it be your will and ideas that prevail or will you be in the service of other wills, of other ideas? Will you be a master or a slave?

Alienation and labor. In Hegel’s dialectic, the masters rule people—their will and ideas prevail over the bodies and minds of others—while the slaves rule matter—their will and ideas are applied to shaping material existence on behalf of their masters (hoeing a field for agriculture; building a factory for the slaughter of pigs; making a printing press for the publications of the masters). For Hegel, this state of affairs is ironic because the masters, by being able to set others to work for them, find that they are alienated from a key aspect of their own natures—their physical-laboring selves. They have outsourced this aspect of their lives to others. The masters therefore live in gilded cages not made with their own hands—not of their own making—and so not really fulfilling their existence as human beings, which is, in part, to interact with the resistances to life offered by the material world. To live separated from the process of physical labor—and experience only the end-products of the physical labor of others—is ultimately unsatisfying, alienating.

By contrast, the everyday worker—the master’s employee or slave—discovers a substitute satisfaction in being a loser. Though not a master of other people, he—the male pronoun is always used by Hegel and so will be retained in this summary of his thought—may find himself a skilled master of a tool, a machine, or a process that shapes material nature in some satisfying way, leading to a rediscovery of his own inner power, his “being for itself.” In thought and physical labor directed to a triumph over a material problem, the slave rediscovers an inner strength that the master does not enjoy. The master, in deriving pleasure from material things by setting others to labor for him on his behalf, is actually alienated from the material world (one step removed). The slave, however, finds in the shaping of material reality (rather than people), dignity and self-knowledge: “[I]n fashioning the thing [as opposed to persons], he becomes aware that being-for-itself belongs to him, that he himself exists essentially and actually in his own right” (546).

This is the satisfaction of mastery, and it is an idea of Hegel’s that Marx seized upon, asserting that capitalism, in its ever finer divisions of labor in the name of efficiency, alienates both workers (producers) and the bourgeoisie (consumers) from full enjoyment of what is actually produced, undercutting the dignity that Hegel accorded to losers in the Master-Slave dialectic. The producers (the workers) don’t enjoy the fruits of their labor and the consumers (the masters) don’t enjoy the satisfactions of material mastery.

Second-wave feminism and alienation. Taking his cue from Hegel, Marx foregrounded alienation in relation to labor (and what to do about it), and second-wave feminists make this important as well, but they also ask how women might live less alienated lives generally. In religion, for example, conceiving God as a father as opposed to a mother can be alienating for women, and so there are some second-wave feminists interested in doing away with God altogether (adopting atheism as a metaphysical stance). Other feminists are interested in reviving such things as Goddess-centered pagan cult-practices to reconnect with their spirituality in a non-patriarchal way.

And living in an industrial, urban, and consumer civilization can alienate one from nature—from “Mother Nature”—and so there are some feminists interested in reducing this form of alienation through living environmentally-friendly lifestyles and engaging in environmental activism (“eco-feminism”). Living in a heterosexist society—one that frowns upon homosexuality—can also be alienating for lesbians, both socially and by discouraging them from being in contact with their most inner desires—and so this stands in need of correction.

Still other feminists take a cue from Marx’s associate, Friedrich Engels, to focus on the exploitative hierarchies in marriage and the alienating and unequal divisions of labor there. The husband, wrote Engels, “is the bourgeois and the wife represents the proletariat” (quoted in Tong 48). Betty Freidan, in her now classic book of second-wave feminism, The Feminine Mystique (196), writes of the malaise and depression that can accompany the stay-at-home wife (“the problem that has no name”). For Friedan, the mystifications and idealizations that accompany the feminine ideal (strong and nurturing mother, sexy lover, quiet-follower) place women in alienating double binds. In The Feminine Mystique, Friedan recommends as partial remedy work outside the home.

A key element of second-wave feminism, then, is to find ways for women to live lives that are not psychologically alienated (from themselves, their families, their work, their communities, the environment, the fate of others) and so to flourish in accord with their deepest—most essential—natures (however that might be conceptualized). Second-wave feminism thus evolved beyond first-wave feminist aspirations of education opportunity, individual rights, equality, and voting, and toward an attempt at inner harmony: “[T]o create the kind of world in which women will experience themselves as whole persons, as integrated rather than fragmented, or splintered, beings” (Tong 45).

Second-wave feminist politics. Thinking about how men attempt to control women’s bodies and the means of reproduction (and thereby control women), and how alienation functions within patriarchy, led to second-wave feminist politics surrounding such matters as women in the workplace, pornography, images of women in media and religion, motherhood, abortion, the patriarchal (male-dominated) family, lesbianism, reproductive technologies, equal pay for equal work, maternity leave, body-politics, body image, rape, anorexia, women in combat, spousal abuse, women in film, and prostitution. Some key American figures in second wave feminism who addressed such issues included the poet Adrienne Rich, the essayist Andrea Dworkin, and science fiction writers Margaret Atwood and Marge Piercy.

Poststructuralist, post-essentialist feminism. First-wave feminism brought to the foreground of consciousness women’s essential rationality and equality; second-wave feminism, that no woman is an island.

What of third-wave feminism?

Third-wave feminism brings to consciousness the gaps in feminist theory and structures themselves; that feminist women can overgeneralize about their own natures as women, and in adopting alternative structures to patriarchy (intellectual and social), they can (ironically) lead themselves, inadvertently, into new and subtle forms of structural and intellectual oppression and emotional double binds. Thus, if patriarchy must be resisted, so must an over-structured and essentialist feminism. This is third-wave feminism in a nutshell. It is post-structuralist and post-essentialist, and while it embraces and advances key second-wave feminist concerns into the 21st century, it also complicates them (as second-wave feminism complicated first-wave feminism).

In third-wave feminism, the best and most natural way of living and being in the world as a woman has no obviously easy or right answer; it is an open question. Third-wave feminism is a feminism emphasizing greater tolerance for experimentation and diversity within feminism itself, calling into question (for example) whether female sex workers (either in prostitution or pornography) are of necessity tragic victims of oppression, and whether one’s sense of inner freedom needs to line-up with an outsider’s analysis of one’s objective freedom. Third-wave feminism is open, for instance, to the question of appropriate clothing choices for women (whether or not a woman wearing a burka is really oppressed if she chooses it; whether a woman “dressed slutty” is of necessity not really a feminist).

Thus third-wave feminism is (metaphorically) a rebellion of daughters—the daughters of second-wave feminist mothers. The women who came of age with second-wave feminist concerns already in the cultural air are trying to work out and assert their own individuality and autonomy—what feminism means for them. Third-wave feminism’s openness to diversity and nuance within feminism itself can thus be read as a sign of the success and maturity of feminism—or of its contemporary stall (or even derailment).

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Multi-Meter Sea Level Rise Within Sixty Years? James Hansen And Eighteen Other Climate Scientists Have Written A Peer Reviewed Paper Evaluating The Possibility

Last summer, James Hansen made some alarming estimates surrounding sea level rise over the coming decades–not centuries–and his new paper on this, written with eighteen other climate scientists, has now gone through the peer review process. The paper lays out some worse case scenarios, and gauges their likelihood.

If you click over to the below link, watch Hansen’s video embedded there.

Last summer, James Hansen—the pioneer of modern climate science—pieced together a research-based revelation: a little-known feedback cycle between the …
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The Owl of Time Rests Its Anxious, Hungry Eyes: Meditation as Calm Abiding in the Present

Past and future vision. The ability of mental flight through time–to remember the past and model alternative futures–is our evolutionary superpower as a species. These past and forward-looking capacities help us navigate the world really, really well.

We are the owls of time. Like the owl that reigns over its spacial territory as the animal with the best night vision, we reign over the territory of time as the animal with the best recall and future-modeling vision.

It’s a great survival advantage to be the sort of animal we are, with the power to range in memory and imagination over time past and time in potentia. It’s why we have big brains: to register incoming data in the present, and act on it with the assistance of recollection and imagination.

Anxiety. Brains support bodily movement. That’s why we have them. With the brain’s support, we efficiently block and avoid the alternative futures we don’t want, and assist into existence the alternative futures we do want.

But this blessing of past and future vision supporting bodily movement is also our curse, for it’s accompanied by anxiety. Past and future vision constitute the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil from which we eat and fall. These forms of vision deliver us from the instinctual innocence of animals into the cogito and experience of human anguish and decision-making. Imagine here Milton’s Adam and Eve, driven from Paradise, accompanied by the angel with the flaming sword.

Cast from the Garden of Instinct, there are so many things we can choose; so many enticements; so many things that can go wrong–and we see it. Like the owl that surveys the landscape of night, we survey the logically possible landscapes of time. We scrutinize and navigate these potential landscapes anxiously. We are not innocent.

So meditation returns us to the innocence of the metaphorical Garden; it brings the anxiety surrounding our gnosis of good and evil, past and future, down by bringing us back to this present moment–not channeled this time through animal instinct, but through meta-cognitive attention. Meditation is the dimmer switch on time vision, training us to get a bit of distance going in our relation to instinctual reactivity, memory, incoming data, and the terrors and enticements of those futures that we can imagine.

Calm abiding. That’s meditation. Calm abiding in the present.

Rising, ripening, rotting. In calm abiding, one notices a recurrent pattern that one comes to expect and accept: all things change. Whether as present to awareness, or in themselves, things are on the move; impermanent. All things in time are mortal, residing, as on a bell curve, in various and individual stages of rising, ripening, rotting. This is insight, what the Buddhists call vipassana.  Existence is mortal existence in time; the world is on fire; “all that is solid melts into air” (Shakespeare).

And you can abide this dissolution calmly. That’s the wisdom bestowed by meditation practice. You don’t need to run away from what’s present in the moment, either into time past or time future. Rather than choosing to be elsewhere, you can choose to be in this now, content as Alan Ginsberg’s empty-eyed sheep in his poem, “Wales Visitation”:

No imperfection in the budded mountain,
Valleys breathe, heaven and earth move together,
daisies push inches of yellow air, vegetables tremble,
grass shimmers green
sheep speckle the mountainside, revolving their jaws with empty eyes,
horses dance in the warm rain,
tree-lined canals network live farmland,
blueberries fringe stone walls on hawthorn’d hills,
pheasants croak on meadows haired with fern—

[…]

What did I notice? Particulars! The
vision of the great One is myriad—
smoke curls upward from ashtray,
house fire burned low, […]

That’s insight into the nature of things from the vantage of calm abiding. “The / vision of the great One is myriad–” and on fire; “smoke curls upward from ashtray, / house fire burned low,…” If there’s a Buddhist version of the biblical fall, it’s in fighting this fire, trying to make things stay; mistaking what is impermanent and non-dual for permanent and dual.

So the instant you start thinking–“I mean to be permanent over here, and keep you permanent over there”–you’re pretty much done for. Buddhists call this sort of essentialist and dualistic thinking the beginning of ignorance (avidya). In Buddhism, dukkha (suffering) and avidya are intimately linked. If you’re dwelling in ignorance, you’ve mistaken the self that is non-dual, empty, impersonal, contingent, impermanent, and interdependent for dual, essential, personal, permanent, and disconnected. You’ve mistaken a rope for a snake.

And once you’ve mistaken yourself to be this sort of self (a self demarcated by a skin, ultimately separate from the cosmos and the ravages of time), you’re headed for a world of anxiety, anguish, and hurt, for now you’ve set the ongoing survival of you against the great big world that is not you.

So one of the insights gained in the practice of calm observing and abiding is that suffering begins at the point where self and nonself get distinguished in this manner. From an evolutionary perspective, this existential fall into duality begins with the first cell. The skin of the alpha cell–its boundary layer–was the beginning of all individual troubles in the cosmos. The first time something distinguished itself from everything else (became a “self”), the wheel of samsara (the wheel of birth and death; of rising, ripening, and rotting) started to turn, as a drama, for that organism. The shit hit the fan.

Of course, cells don’t have minds that worry about the outcomes of dramas, but we do. Though a cell functions dualistically, it isn’t thinking dualistically, but when we do, we purchase into the game of suffering and the ten thousand things, which is samsara.

The laughing, ironic Buddha. So meditation is not a tragic practice, akin to Greek theater, but an ironic one; a comic one. It’s seeing the dance of existence, and letting what’s actually here in this moment move along without one’s agitated and over-serious interference. Meditation stills the anxious dash of body and mind to avert, grasp, and hold.

The irony of calm abiding is illustrated in this haiku by Masahide:

My house burned down.

Now it’s easier

To see the rising moon.

One thing leaves, another rises, and one’s attitude can be, not uh oh, nor oh no, but ah so. The qualities, after all, of the next Big Thing will likely prove to be very much akin to what has your attention now. Something over there, in some future space and time, will arise, ripen, and rot to your awareness. No need to run to it. Like Polonius’s corpse in Hamlet, it “will stay till you come” (4.3.38). Be here now. Meditation is an island of calm. Let this time and place have its moment in you to arise, ripen, and rot–with your witness, but without regret or anxiety.

Here and now vision replaces past and future vision. Meditation is thus Oedipus-like, a kind of putting out of one’s eyes to the nightmare visions of past and future time so that you can experience, without an excess of static, what’s going on in the present. It’s losing the eyes of regret and anxious future vision, so as to be guided into the warm hand of this present Antigone, the daughter that is actually here and now.

And what’s going on here and now? This is where the levels of irony can get really thicket-wild, for in meditation you may come to realize that even this present is not actually present to you whole, but arrives as fragments colored by memory and imagination. Think of T.S Eliot’s line from The Wasteland: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins” (line 431).

As a being in time, you cannot be unmediated, nor wholly present to yourself–and that’s okay. One trick of meditation is in letting the fragmentary nature of your present state of affairs be, accepting that even in this present moment you can never be wholly present to yourself, or experience the present as unmediated by memory, language, anticipation, thought, emotion. Your brain is always schematizing you, and in meditation you’re not trying to chase that fact away, but just, rather, noticing it.

So what a comic situation our pitiful species is in! Alan Watts once named one of his books, The Wisdom of No Escape. No rest for the wicked big-brained apes that we are.

But this gnosis of our predicament–of our mediated, fragmentary, uncertain, and mortal lives–can also give us permission to lay down our arms, at least in the hour we meditate, and make love, not war, to this present cosmos. In lingering contemplation on our experience of now, we can see the world, and ourselves, with renewed curiosity and attention–and even sensuality–wondering and deriving pleasure from the beauty and oddness that presents itself now. Now.

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