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. . . 2001-11-04

Battle royal Punch
My attention has been drawn to a McSweeneys profile -- quite perceptive in its way, really, and any publicity is good publicity, but the odd thing is I don't recall ever even meeting a McSweeneys reporter. Maybe he was working from hearsay. Or maybe I had other things on my mind that day.

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Movie Comment

When they say "The world will never be the same" (and they're still saying it quite a lot; just in the past week the California State Auto Association, an alumni group, and a credit union have all mailed their confirmations to me), I really hope they mean that we'll never have to hear anyone ever say nice things about Fight Club again. In a crowded pack of overblown Hollywood indies blinded by self-regard and terminated by horrendously unconvincing "clever twists," it managed to distinguish itself by imagining the deaths of urban thousands (who, naturally, didn't include the hero or his girlfriend and who, therefore, were of no concern) with a smugness that Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger might envy. OK, I admit I wrote that same story myself when I was eighteen, but I felt thoroughly embarrassed by it before reaching nineteen. The idea that those collapsing special effects added moral depth to the movie's obnoxious flattery is like saying that porn becomes socially redeeming when all the secondary characters die of syphilis.

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A reader queries: "Rich frat boy PC?"

It's a rigid code of speech easily induced from the following imaginary dialogs:

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The blurb is a difficult form at best, but its authors risk especial injury when they wrap a subject as prickly as Thomas Bernhard, whose pinched sneer -- more vitreous than vitriolic, less sulphurous than hydrogen-sulfidic -- casts a consistently unflattering (if dim) light on all around it. (And on itself as well; it seemed to me that Woodcutters would've worked better if the narrator's scornful scare-italics had slowly increased their share of the prose until they covered every word he set down....)

The most amusing page of Woodcutters (and for pity's sake I'll skip the introductory sentence which blows the joke) is the nearly Flaubertian (first draft Flaubert, anyway):

To present The Wild Duck to the Viennese public was not just a risk, said the actor, but a considerable gamble. The Viennese simply did not respond to modern drama, as he put it -- they never had responded to modern drama. They preferred to go and see classical plays, and The Wild Duck was not a classical play -- it was a modern play, which might admittedly one day become a classic. Ibsen might one day join the classics, and so might Strindberg, said the actor. He had often felt that Strindberg was a greater dramatist than Ibsen. Yet at other times, he said, I've felt the opposite to be true -- that Ibsen is superior to Strindberg and has a better prospect of becoming a classic. Sometimes I think Miss Julie will one day become a classic, and at other times I think it'll be a play like The Wild Duck. But if we attach too much importance to Strindberg we do Ibsen an injustice, he said, just as we do Strindberg an injustice if we attach too much importance to Ibsen. Personally, he said, he loved the Nordic way of writing, the Nordic way of writing for the theater. He had always loved Edvard Munch too. I've always loved The Cry, he said -- which of course you are all familiar with. What an extraordinary work of art! I once went to Oslo just to see The Cry, when it was still in Oslo. That doesn't mean that I have a preference for the Scandinavian countries, he said. Whenever I was in Scandinavia I had a nostalgia for the south, or at least for Germany, he said. Stockholm -- what a dreary city! To say nothing of Oslo -- so enervating, so soul-destroying. And Copenhagen -- enough said!

But the second most amusing page is the back cover:

"Mr. Bernhard's portrait of a society in dissolution has a Scandinavian darkness reminiscent of Ibsen and Strindberg...."
-- Mark Anderson, New York Times Book Review

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And Ross Nelson draws several recent threads together by sending me a reminder of Wittgenstein's poker and Popper's riposte.

Ah... Austrians, violence, academic bitchiness, moral rules, and a typical opportunity for exercise of free will: it's completely up to the reader to decide which story to believe precisely because each is so equally, miserably, trivial.

. . . 2001-11-07

Consumption Blues

With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes.

... "He ate more than the Carpenter, though," said Tweedledee. "You see he held his handkerchief in front, so that the Carpenter couldn't count how many he took: contrariwise."

I have to believe that John Elkins (link via Splinters & simcoe) started out with thesis firmly in hand before he collected his results, because seven out of thirty art-historian respondents admitting that paintings have made them cry (presumably not in pain or in laughter) seems a high number compared to what you'd get from a random sampling of non-art-historians. Might even indicate that people who've been emotionally moved by art are more likely to study art history....

Knowledge vs. Emotion? Not in my experience. Maybe Knowledge vs. a certain type of self-pitying it's-all-about-me Emotion, but that's not a type of Emotion that we necessarily need more of, despite it's being the most pluckable heartstring in sight. Or maybe Emotion vs. a certain type of dictatorial it's-all-about-me Knowledge. Contrariwise, when art has made me cry without sickening me afterwards, it's always with (from?) the feeling of gaining knowledge, including knowledge once held but since lost -- like, for example, the knowledge of the experience itself.

. . . 2001-11-08

One reader adds to our dossier on glassy, gassy Thomas Bernhard:

"Woodcutters is a fix-up of the last ten pages of Wittgenstein's Nephew from 2 yrs earlier, where it is not Bernhard but the titular Paul Wittgenstein who provides the final blow (missing from the novelization): 'You too have become a victim of the imbecility and intrigues and underhand dealings that go on at the Burgtheater. It doesn't surprise me. Let it be a lesson to you.' This suggests that Bernhard was too socialized for his own good and hated himself for it."
While another adds to our ball of confusion:
"#17140\WA IcePrincess"

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Spread the Noise

In our present state, Project Censored could easily move to bi-weekly awards. Here are my current picks (mostly fished from the flood of bloating bobbers at Ethel) for stories most shamefully underreported by American news media:

  1. Between January and September, the Bush administration pressured intelligence agencies to drop their investigations of bin Laden and other Saudi-related terrorists.
  2. The administration has persistently downplayed or ignored domestic right-wing terrorism, particularly as it relates to the anthrax panic.
  3. The "economic revitalization" act just passed pointedly hands government money over to corporations who've moved investments and jobs to tax shelters overseas -- that is, to those least likely to revitalize the American economy.
  4. A heroic giant bullfrog saves -- actually, I guess I already covered that.
Have I missed your favorite? If so, ship it along in the germ-free comment box up there -- I'm kind of curious....

. . . 2001-11-09


David Auerbach writes (or rather wrote, eleven days ago -- I gotta improve my turnaround time!)

Your treatment of free will as being subordinate to the predictability issue is justified (there are articles out there maintaining that chaos theory proves the existence of free will), but I think there's some cultural significance to the free will issue that you've overlooked. Free will is mostly used in ethical and political contexts. You say that regardless of your free choice, you'll be held responsible for hitting the lamppost, but I think that's only 2/3 true. Given the 3 canonical reasons for the sentence awaiting you:

  1. Let's use him as an example so people stop hitting lampposts as much.
  2. Let's make sure he never hits lampposts again.
  3. Let's give him what he deserves for hitting that lamppost.
--the first is almost never used as justification except in cases of capital punishment, where it's generally acknowledged as fallacious anyway, the second is more common for petty crime than real crime, leaving the third as the dominant rationale in the justice system today. Which would be fine, except that desert really does rely on some notion of autonomous action, separable from environmental factors, in order not to fall apart. (There's a lot of hand-wringing that can go on here over deserts being assigned within/without a being, but it's all bean-counting.) Agency survives determinism, since it was you what hit the lamppost, but a sentence that doesn't fall into the category of determent doesn't.

(I know I'm taking a Sartre-like position that inconsistency is the worst of all possible sins, but hey, that was always true in the rarefied world of philosophy.)

So, if you follow determinism, people can be assigned responsibility for actions without having any moral desert for what follows from them, and I've never seen a convincing argument linking the two. But introduce free will and the world is suddenly a much fairer place. And it's not just coincidence that

(t1) Paul Allen deserves to have 50 billion dollars.
sounds a lot better than
(t2) Paul Allen should have 50 billion dollars.
People like Robert Nozick have always been careful to couch their moral pronouncements in the first form rather than the second, and with good reason. But it's only with the presumption of some sort of free will that the statements have any meaningful difference.

It's been a few years, but I recall that Rawls uses the same desert principles to defend his social justice system, and I've never understood why, because he doesn't seem to need them. ("The poor deserve to have a decent standard of living" vs. "The poor should have a decent standard of living.", e.g.) Maybe it makes his arguments more palatable to Confucianists.

So my main point of departure from you is that I think there is a very definite use for the concept of free will beyond religion, unfortunately. The best that can be said is that free will is a far more established concept for neocons to pin their hopes on than, say, substantive due process or strict constructionism. You're probably right on the irrelevancy of the concept in classical civilizations, but that's a question for Alasdair MacIntyre to answer.

Work calls, but free will is a nice distraction from matters of importance. (I note the triumphalist tone in that piece clashing nicely with utter despondency in the privacy entry.)

I actually don't hear much about the world being a fair place, so I'll skip that debate.

Only in special circumstances (which I'll get to in a bit) does the notion of "desert" rely on the assumption of free will in the deserver. Instead, "desert" relies on the existence (tacit or explicit) of some disher of deserts, and moreover assumes that the disher has free will. It's meaningless to discuss "what reward or punishment is deserved" if there's no possibility of a rewarder or punisher. Without such an agency, all we have is "what is" or (if you're feeling ambitious) "what is caused."

It's easy for me to say that "Carol Emshwiller's books deserve front page coverage by the New York Times Book Review, the Times Literary Supplement, and the New York Review of Books" not because I assume that Emshwiller's books have free will, but because it's easy for me to picture the fat-cat top-hatted stogie-chomping editors of those organs free-wilfully derelicting their duties, the cads.

On the other hand, I'm more likely to say that "I wish M. John Harrison's books were bestsellers" or "People should really be doing more to make M. John Harrison's books bestsellers" than to say that "M. John Harrison's books deserve to be bestsellers" (and even less that "M. John Harrison deserves to write bestsellers"), because the birth of a bestseller is far too confusing a process for my pretty little blond head to handle.

And what ho! here's monotheism again! A more general notion of desert (or, as the professors call it, justice) assumes (again, often tacitly) a more general notion of judge: a universal, omniscient, omnipotent, fair, righteous, and free agency. When we say, "I deserve to be happy," that's who we're appealing to; when we say "Those 6000 people didn't deserve to die" (or, conversely, "Those 6000 people deserved to die") that's who we're implicitly arguing with (or explicitly agreeing with). Similarly, when we (or more likely they) say that "Paul Allen deserves fifty billion dollars," they're imaginatively placing themselves in the role of that wise and benevolent deity called the Free (ha ha ha ha!) Market.

Consider instead the human agents of the employee benefits organization CIGNA who decided that Wilson H. Taylor deserved a $1,200,000 salary and a $3,500,000 bonus. It's hard to believe that they cared about Taylor's freedom of will any more than Microsoft cares about its programmers' freedom of will. On the contrary, I imagine that any business would prefer that its employees be as deterministic as possible. What they instead assume is their own right to hand such a large sum of money over to an individual -- and, particularly, to an individual who so resembles themselves.

The apparent justice of such judgments depends on a shared context; that is, ideally on a jury of one's peers (as opposed to a jury of the peerage -- e.g., Bush before the Republican Supreme Court as opposed to you-or-me before the Republican Supreme Court, or Steve Ballmer in front of Microsoft's board as opposed to you-or-me in front of Microsoft's board). When I bomb a building, whether I'm punished or praised depends on what context I share with judge and jury; when I do my job, whether I'm given a million-dollar bonus or laid off depends on the same.

Which finally brings us to the barely visible sliver of human existence in which the notion of "justice" and the notion of "free will" overlap. "Free will" (or "determinism") is experienced more often in introspective recollection than in action -- "It's my own fault" or "I didn't really have a choice" -- and punitive judgment is, very slightly and only after the more essential matter of deciding whether a law has been broken or a party has been injured, a matter of applying that introspective experience to someone else's past conduct. On a jury or on the bench, we assume both an unusual freedom and an unusual weightiness in our decision making, and the closer the miscreant came to our own (extremely rare) state of knowledge and power, the more culpable we consider them. *

Therein inheres the wit of T. P. Uschanov's swinging the deterministic spotlight onto the hidden-but-necessary P.O.V. courtroom characters of judge and jury.

*       Which is putting it awfully idealistically, of course: many judges and juries couldn't care less about that aspect of "justice," and those who could find it much easier to apply these strict standards externally than internally: that is, we blandly assume that the (extremely rare) mindset that we're in at the moment is the same as held in whatever external situation we're considering, and then blandly forget that mindset while going about our quotidian affairs. Thus the honestly self-righteous indignation displayed by those in power when they're declared miscreants, or by daytime talk show audience members who find themselves treated roughly on the talk show stage.

. . . 2001-11-11

Remembrance Day

I'd always assumed that Mr. Natural's "Is dis a system?" was R. Crumb's own addition to our national store of catch phrases, but given Crumb's scholarly turn of mind, it of course turns out to be a revival. While flipping through Lorenz Hart's lyrics to the dreadful musical-New-York-immigrant-comedy Betsy (because I [heart] NY immigrants), I found in the dreadful opening number, "The Kitzel Engagement," the following couplet:

[Winnie kisses Levi]
CHORUS: She kissed him!
  LEVI: Is dis a system?

(Followed by rhyming "change your name to Kitzel" with "wet my whitzle," "care a bitzel," "time that flits'll," and "Wiener schnitzel." Oy.)

Hart's use is clearly also only a reference to an already well-established catchphrase, presumably from some ancient joke or novelty song. Unfortunately, neither Hart nor Crumb is available for consultation, and an Internet search leaves me none the wiser (what are the odds!?). Can any of you fine people out there -- I hear you breathing! -- help me?

If not, I may be forced to post more quotes from the show. And I can do it, too:

We've a race that's het'rogeneous
With folks from all the earth.
A moving picture Metro genius
Can come from foreign birth.
And the race that used to be gypped
By the Pharaohs down in Egypt
By the gross appear,
And we're mighty glad they're here.
All were different when they came,
But jazz has made them all the same!


They take their places upon the dance floor,
And then races all blend somehow!
Go and show the drum how!
Each one croons just American tunes,
The ones that they recall are jazz.
We all are jazz relations!
We're all good Americans now!

. . . 2001-11-13

Consumption Blues, cont.

A conversation with artist-historian Juliet Clark brought up these further points:

  1. The extent to which the sentimental can be distinguished from the profound may be arguable, but it deserves mention: in contemporary usage "profound" usually marks a (purported) weightiness of both emotion and intellect, mutually reinforcing rather than in conflict.

  2. What interferes with an art historian's (or a literary scholar's) emotional expression is less likely to be education than career. In scholarly research (and in academic advancement), the direct emotional experience of an artifact can be a distraction from other aspects of the piece, and at the very least has to be detached from them for the discipline to get anywhere at all. This doesn't mean that knowledge interferes with emotion; it just means that one has to leave the frozen moment of absorption if one is to learn anything outside that experience itself -- and that it's considered bad form to cry in the workplace.

  3. The Everly Brothers aside, to fill with love is not always to fill with tears.

  4. "Have you ever sneezed in front of a work of art?"
  I Want Some Cookies

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Although the New York Times Book Review still hasn't printed a Carol Emshwiller cover story, it has at least printed a Kelly Link recommendation (courtesy of Salon's Andrew O'Hehir). Good on 'em!

In fact, it's getting so you can't swing a copy of stranger things happen without hitting a Salon employee. All the more reason to buy a copy!

. . . 2001-11-17

Preaching to the choir & pillorying the congregation

The recent crossfire between two of my favorite virtual watering places has been sad -- but at least not in a completely boring way, which makes it better than most sad things:

"The Right always wins these encounters, and it always wins by virusing the affective structures of the Left with its own."
Me, I think (more hopefully) that here again we're just bumping into the pleasure of attacking one's neighbors and the impossibility of defining a politically effective group in terms of opposition. It's true that I've seen "leftist" pundits criticize other "leftist" pundits for not remaining oppositional at all times -- which rallying cry, though lastingly delightsome to the crier and useful to the information-hungry, doesn't permit much organized progress after the Bastille is taken: repelling particles disperse rather than cohere. But holier than thou is played much the same no matter what the issue at hand or what the beliefs of the handler, and, as might be surmised from the name of the game, its appeal isn't limited to secular humanists.

The political power presently wielded by fundamentalist Protestant demagogues has developed from the coincidence of several historical accidents, including:

All of which have less to do with ideology than with expediency. Introduce enough irresolvable conflicts, and the "right" coalition would splinter into factions almost as nicely as the "left": it has in the past, and it can again. (Bearing in mind, of course, that, no matter what loose coalitions might be in play, the most powerful single faction in American politics will continue to be, as it's been since the Civil War, that represented by corporate lobbyists.)

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I usually ignore my web stats, but an occasional glance at the referrer logs is useful for spotting image-jackers like the Free Republic clowns who've been grabbing our lovely "I'm With Stupid" T-shirt shot. Enjoy the redesign, boys!

. . . before . . .. . . after . . .

Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
All other material: Copyright 2001 Ray Davis.