vid on my hero (and thoreau's) nathaniel peabody rogers. i love his nature writing, his radical politics, his razor-sharp polemical style.
vid on my hero (and thoreau's) nathaniel peabody rogers. i love his nature writing, his radical politics, his razor-sharp polemical style.
unaccountably, everyone (well, almost everyone) seems to have forgotten to buy my self-published thingummies, all of which have appeared since my fall from disgrace. in reverse order:
the ya novel i wrote my daughter emma: spyder's rebellion, or how to overthrow your school. "Like The Hunger Games without the hunger or the games. Like The Fault in our Stars with plenty of faults but zero stars." --Jex Wopley
the astonishing anthology of anti-authoritarianism: american defiance
a collection of essays by the most radical human being of the early 19th century: herald of freedom: essays of nathaniel rogers, american transcendentalist and radical abolitionist
waterway: a new translation of the tao te ching, and introducing the wu wei ching. "Dank as a motherfucker, motherfucker." --Xi Jinping
coming next will be a collection of black power scriptures, including the holy piby (robert athlyi rogers), the royal parchment scroll of black supremacy (fitz ballantine pettersborough), the promised key (leonard howell), the holy koran of moorish science temple (noble drew ali), and spiritual writings of marcus garvey.
we've republished spyder's rebellion, or how to overthrow your school: better size, better cover, better proofreading. also kindle. i think it's pretty damn good, though i would i guess. it would take a special kind of parent to buy it for their middle-school or high-school age kid, though. but no doubt it's a coming sensation; perhaps it can replace my income. yeah, no. but it's fun.
as crispy press rolls on, i have republished - in much better form - the middle-readers/ya/peoplelikeyou book spyder's rebellion, or how to overthrow a middle school (also kindle). it was originally roughed out and kindled in like 2007-8. i started this time around with a document in my hard drive on which my teen daughter emma had labored, on dialogue and characterization particularly.
Spyder (Sarah Paulette Eider) is a 14-year-old anarchist and writing prodigy who more or less overthrows her Pennsylvania middle school, in concert with a wild group of non-conformists and interesting non-non-conformists. One of the few books to take teenagers seriously as political activists and intellectuals, this novel traces the characters' awakening to the problems of the world around them - from animal cruelty to ridiculous authoritarianism. It rollicks through their disagreements, as well as budding romances, party weekends, strange preferences in music, problem parents: in short all the accoutrements of modern adolescence.
If you were thinking of overthrowing a public school (peacefully, more or less), you could get some tips, for the story is based on real events in the lives of the authors. Crispy overthrew Alice Deal Junior High School in 1972.
"Like 'Hunger Games' without the hunger or the games; like 'The Fault in our Stars' with plenty of faults but zero stars."
--Bogul S. Purvy
here's a vid i made first time.
one thing i've found out: you're never too old to get expelled from school.
sometimes it's amazing what comes from abebooks. i once got a 1948 edition of the meaning of words by the hyper-obscure american genius alexander bryan johnson. it says 'max black' on the flyleaf. i recently got a copy of felix g. rivera's book suiseki: the japanese art of miniature landscape stones inscribed by the author, but maybe that's not that surprising. but how about this little inscription on a lovely copy of acts of the anti-slavery apostles (1883) by parker pillsbury (which includes a stirring tribute to nathaniel peabody rogers): "This book was presented by the author to me personally in my office of the Buckeye Vidette [that's a newspaper], Salem Ohio." then it's signed pretty illegibly, then "Editor and Publisher."
i find things like this moving. i tried to migrate to kindle a while back, but keep coming back to the physical book for numerous reasons.
i've republished the nathaniel rogers book, in a more competent form. 6x9 size, correctish pagination, and justified margins at little extra cost to you! it's a miracle. looks better on kindle too, and is set up to match american defiance. sorry to anyone who might have bought the first version, which was not many. but the text is there either way, which is what does matter.
gonna say it once again until someone shows me i'm wrong: the most radical writer in the most dimensions alive in the first half of the nineteenth century. other candidates whose lives overlapped: william godwin and mary wollstonecraft, tom paine, percy shelley, pierre-joseph proudhon, robert owen, fanny wright, fourier, marx, william lloyd garrison. not going to cut it, though, i think! on the other hand, there is a lot of the world that isn't england, france, and the us.
anyway, nathaniel peabody rogers was a lovely transcendentalist nature writer to boot.
[From the Herald of Freedom, July 4, 1845]
While I am writing, it is raining most magnificently and gloriously out doors. It absolutely roars, it comes down in such multitude and big drops. And how refreshing! It waters the earth. There has been but little rain, and our sandy region had got to looking dry and distressed. Every thing looks encouraged now, as the great strainer over head is letting down the shower bath. The grass darkens as it drinks it in, with a kind of delicate satisfaction. And the trees stand and take it as a cow does a carding. They hold still as a mouse, while they abide by its peltings, not moving a twig, or stirring as leaf. The dust of the wide naked street is transmuted into mud. And the stages sound over the road, as if they rattled on naked pavement. Puddles stand in all the hollows.
You can hardly see the people for umbrellas, and the clouds look as if they had not done with us. The prospect for the Canterbury meeting looks lowery. Let it rain. All for the best. It is extraineous, but I could hardly help noticing the great Rain and saying this word about it. I think the more mankind regard these beautiful doings in Nature, the more they will regard each other, and love each other, and the less they will be inclined to enslave each other. The readier abolitionists they will become. And the better.
The Rain is a great Anti-Slavery discourse. And I like to have it pour. No eloquence is richer to my spirit, or music. A thunder shower, what can match it for eloquence and poetry! That rush from heaven of the big drops - in what multitude and succession, and how they sound as they strike! How they play on the old home roof and on the thick tree tops! What music to go to sleep by, to a tired boy as he lays under the naked roof! And the great low bass thunder as it rolls off over the hills and settles down behind them - to the very centre, and you can feel the old Earth jar under your feet - that is music and poetry and life. And the lightning strikes you - what of that? It won't hurt you. "Favored man," truly, as uncle Pope says, "by touch ethereal slain." A light touch, compared to Disease's, the Doctor's - or Poverty's. I am no trifler with human destiny, but nothing that naturally happens to a man can hurt him.
Who are the white people that we should fear them? They cannot run fast, and are good marks to shoot at. They are only men; our fathers have killed many of them. We are not squaws, and we will stain the earth red with blood.
In short, as a snow-drift is formed where there is a lull in the wind, so, one would say, where there is a lull of truth, an institution springs up. But the truth blows right on over it, nevertheless, and at length blows it down.
--Thoreau, "Life With Principle"
I ask no favors for my sex. I surrender not our claim to equality. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks and permit us to stand upright on that ground which God designed us to occupy.
--Sarah Grimke, 1837
i think the paperback of american defiance came out beautifully.
the essay by douglass, "The Claims of the Negro Ethnologically Considered," given as a commencement address at Western Reserve College in 1854 (!) - is one of a number of little-known treasures.
The relation subsisting between the white and black people of this country is the vital question of the age. In the solution of this question, the scholars of America will have an important and controlling part. This is the moral battlefield to which their country and their God now call them. In the eye of both, the neutral scholar is an ignoble man. Here, a man must be hot, or be accounted cold. The lukewarm and cowardly will be rejected by earnest men on either side of the controversy. The cunning man who avoids it, to gain the favor of both parties, will be regarded with scorn; and the timid man who shrinks from it, for fear of offending either party, will be despised. He that is not for us, is against us.
[with cloud suiseki]
i think the the paperback of waterway came out great. i'm getting a bit better at making books online. there's more to come, and i'll get there on design etc eventually! we don't actually need the gatekeepers anymore.
If there were a god,
he'd be like water
that brings life to things
Water seeks the lowest place
and cleanses what it touches.
It is as satisfied with the humble
as with the exalted.
Still, deep, clear,
true, kind, useful,
This is also the true man,
liquid, and at ease.
you know, i hadn't looked at the thing in years, and it took years for it to come together with many collaborators and commentators. i remember being dissatisfied with when i left off. but when i dug it up again, i was quite surprised: i do think it is the best translation of the tao te ching into english, and i don't have the sense that i could have done it at all.
it includes my translation of the tao te ching, which i've worked on for twenty-five years or so. it started with chinese-reading grad students at vanderbilt, and underwent many phases; sometimes i taught it along with mitchell or red pine's translations. a version published on my web site in the early 2000s got a little bit of a following on new-agey websites and such.
it presents a very distinctive translation into what i hope is notably unstilted english; it is as different from stephen mitchell's (which i love) as mitchell's is from, say, witter bynner's (which i like). i think you will understand the text differently when you read it.
This book can tell you nothing;
the Tao leaves you where you began.
A maiden can leave things nameless;
a mother must name her children.
Perfectly empty or carrying ten thousand words, you still return,
and return, and return.
Naming things loses what unites them.
Failing to name things loses them into what unites them.
Words are limits that make experience possible.
But form and formlessness are the same.
Tao and the world are the same,
though we call them by different names.
This unity is dark and deep, but on the other hand it is deep and dark.
It opens into the center of everything.
the second part of waterway is what i hope will be a fundamentally new classical taoist text. i've dubbed it the wu wei ching or book of non-action; it is drawn from kuo hsiang's commentary on the chuang tzu. i really think that kuo hsiang's version of taoism gives the deepest statement of taoist metaphysics and of wu wei as a guide to practical action.
Not only is it impossible for not-being to become being, it is impossible for being to become not-being. So from where and how do things and for that matter the absence of things arise? What came first?
If we say yin and yang came first, how did they come? From where; from what?
Maybe nature came first. But nature is only another name for beings.
Suppose I say the Tao came first. But the Tao is only another name for not-being, so how can it arise? There must be another thing or not-thing and so on infinitely.
When you get down to it, we cannot say anything except that things just are, that they arise spontaneously and spontaneously disappear.
as i've often said, i think that american transcendentalism is ineptly named; i'd prefer an antonym, actually, such as 'immanentalism.' now i think the canon needs expanding, and i think the narrative according to which transcendentalism was superseded by pragmatism is simplistic.
so, if i were assembling a set of transcendentalist essays, i might start with rogers. i would certainly include essays by voltairine de cleyre, perhaps 'the dominant idea' and 'crime and punishment.' and i might fetch up with zora neale hurston: i am straight up asserting that zora is an american transcendentalist in the thoreau mould. a volume focusing exclusively on her essays is long overdue.
in the hands of lit and phil profs, the transcendentalists have sunk into quaint american fossils, groovy proto-hippie nature children, with an embarrassing political individualism that no one can believe anymore, or that must be attenuated or vitiated under interpretation. but a good part of the whole thrust is political from the outset in rogers, emerson, thoreau: a radical anti-authoritarianism. and they have a beautiful individualism that is also not at all about economic self-seeking, but derives from protestant notions like the quaker inner light of god in each person. also, this individualism is a radical egalitarianism, as you see in rogers, in voltairine, in hurston. and it is an individualism that connects with the natural world in much the way many had previously connected to god, and then seeks to place us each as an individuals - not as races, not genders, not parties, not classes, not general wills - into the same shared world.
it is my philosophy.
herald of freedom: essays of nathaniel rogers, american transcendentalist and radical abolitionist (with an essay by thoreau) is available in the following formats:
19th-century whiteness studies, from 'rhose island meeting':
rhode island was proposing a new constitution with a color qualification for voting.
To make it go down with the people, the pitiful creatures inserted a color qualification. They must put in white - the color of the gulls you see winging their uncouth flight up and down the harbor - to shut out three or four hundred colored people, who otherwise might, - when they get money enough, go to the free and equal polls, to choose their masters. The patron of the new Constitution had assumed the name of the "Free Suffrage party."
Their freedom showed itself in making a man's hue the test of his rights. They felt free to enslave a man if he was not white as a diaper. One or two of their demagogues came into the meeting. One was a Dr. Brown, a steam doctor, whose political morality seemed about as high as that of a railroad engine with a Jim Crow car to it; or a church with a "nigger pew." The Doctor gave us an exposè of his white ethics. It seemed he wanted to get suffrage for the white folks, in order, by and by to extend it to the black. [But getting the vote] would not have any tendency to help the colored people out. It would prove a worthless boon in their hands. The white folks would not acknowledge them as equals if they were nominally voters. They never would consent to their being candidates for any thing. They would treat them as "niggers" still.
A man has rights, and they are important to him because their observance is necessary to his happiness, and their violation hurts him. He has a right to personal liberty. It is pleasant to him: permanently pleasant and good. It is therefore his right. And every creature, or I will call it, rather, every existence, (for whether created or not, they certainly exist, they are) every existence that is capable of enjoying or suffering, has its rights, and just mankind will regard them. And regard them as rights. The horse has rights. The dog. The cat, and the rat even. Real rights.
that was written in 1845, mind.
i've just published a new book to kindle:
i'm telling you this is a discovery: someone's going to have to convince me that a more important straight-to-e book has been published.
A great and almost unknown American writer from New Hampshire, Nathaniel Peabody Rogers (1794-1846) was the most radical American political voice of the antebellum period. He is also an undiscovered American Transcendentalist, at his best comparable to Emerson and Thoreau. Both men acknowledged Rogers' influence on them, and Thoreau published one of his first essays - collected here - on Rogers' work, recognizing his excellence as both a political and a nature writer. Anti-slavery drove all his thought, and as an abolitionist writer, only Frederick Douglass and Wendell Phillips are his rivals. Rogers was an anarchist, a pacifist, a feminist, an environmentalist, a religious heretic, an individualist, an anti-capitalist and an advocate of animal rights.
His writings are collected here for the first time since 1849, along with Thoreau's essay "Herald of Freedom" and other materials about Rogers and American radicalism of the early 19th century.
nathaniel rogers was an amazing radical and an amazing writer, and if you want to see someone in 1840 who speaks up for animal rights, against capital punishment, against slavery, against the state, for environmentalism as that came much later to be understood, for indian rights, and so on, and did so with extreme clarity, creativity and vigor, you've got to check this out. he was a decade emerson's senior, and he is a fundamental american transcendentalist.
boy kindle does still mangle a word document. here is a clean, free pdf
Introduction by John Pierpont, 7
I. Manifestos of Liberty and Infidelity, 20
Church and State, 26
The Great Question of the Age, 29
Rhode Island Meeting, 31
Reply to a Correspondent, 41
II. Anti-Slavery, 46
Constitutionality of Slavery, 47
The Amistad Case, 52
III. Against Hierarchy, 56
The Rights of Animals, 62
Thoughts on the Death Penalty, 63
Letter from the Old Man of the Mountain, 67
Address to the Female Anti-Slavery Society, 69
IV. Capitalism, 72
Against Property, 76
Anti-Slavery and Capital, 79
V. Nature Writing and Personal Essays, 81
It Rains, 82
The Ground Bird, 85
Cobbett's American Gardener, 87
Tilling the Ground, 89
"Herald of Freedom," by Henry David Thoreau, 99
Appendix A: William Lloyd Garrison, "Declaration of Sentiments of the Peace Society, 108
Appendix B: American Radical Anti-Authoritarians of the of the Early Nineteenth Century, 113
as much fun as it is to be floundering around with the alligators in the swamping problem, i think that beauty promises more happiness, whatever that is. what i actually want to blog about is art and books, it may shock you to hear. so i am re-opening a blog i had for a class in 2013: writing the arts. first entry: the hilarious book of the incomparable designer raymond loewy.
let me summarize the problems/coincidences with me and nehamas. we both wrote books titles the art of living. mine was from suny press, 1995; his from california, 2000. In 2004, in my book six names of beauty (routledge), i gave the first thorough and systematic revival of what might be termed an erotic conception of beauty since shaftesbury or perhaps burke in the 18th century. (i am an expert on that.) in 2010 nehamas, in only a promise of happiness (princeton) also revived that view, in a somewhat different form, without acknowledging my work in any way, and was ecstatically received as an innovator, winning the award for best professional/scholarly book in philosophy from the association of american publishers. these books have, as epigraphs, the very same four lines of sappho (in different translations, though). those are the big items. i have not at all scoured for other similarities.
it would be natural to think that we both got the view from arthur danto. danto suggested the epigraph to me, and i credited him for it. indeed, danto himself published the abuse of beauty with open court in 2003. i was corresponding with danto, seeing him at conferences, and so on; we both knew of the other's work and had been in dialogue on the subject of beauty for many years. his approach is completely different and opposed to that taken by me, and by nehamas. danto influenced me in many ways, but not in that one (it sure is a great book, though).
i guess nehamas has replied in daily nous. i'll have a look eventually. here's why it's impossible that he hadn't seen my book, though it is indeed not in his index. so, the first thing i did when i started writing 6 names was go on amazon and search 'beauty philosophy.' i definitely wanted to know what books had appeared recently, assess whether anyone was working in a similar vein, and so on. there was remarkably little; almost the first thing that popped up was mothersill's thing from i think the early 90s, which i'd already read. so, as he set out, or at any point in the process, nehamas certainly was also trying to see what was out there. (if he did not do that, he's an excruciatingly incompetent scholar, and nehamas is not that, whatever the drawbacks). and if he had hit mine he would have immediately seen affinities, if this was already his approach to beauty. so the notion that he never saw it at all - especially, for example, if danto was providing the sappho epigraph - just strikes me as extremely unlikely.
one thing that is very difficult not to notice: that someone has written a book with the very title you are going to use, or that there are two books out there by academic philosophers with the same title. indeed, your publisher is quite likely to make you aware of that fact if, impossibly, you missed it. (titles can't be copyrighted, though.) if nothing else, my book would have brough my aesthetics to nehamas's attention.
all i saw was the quote that said: i had never seen his book; which has that element of sneering so familiar to anyone who has ever run into alexander nehamas; he was so unknown that i didn't notice his book. but anyone who was talking to danto about beauty, or doing a rudimentary search on the topic he was writing a scholarly book about, could not have failed to notice my book.
indeed, if nehamas was talking to danto about beauty, i think 'sartwell' would have been one of the first things out his mouth. we had corresponded as my book was in progress, and he blurbed both books. my book would have shown up in the first few search results on amazon or elsewhere, with a blurb by danto, and a sketch of the basic approach. the idea that you'd decide not to look at it seems to me vanishingly small. so, i do not see any realistic scenario where i am not in the index. if i had been doing 6 names a few years after only a promise of happiness, you would have heard early about the similarities; indeed, i might have been very enthusiastic about the similarities, ready to take account of nehamas's work, and band together as a movement for a new-ancient approach to beauty.
indeed, i can more or less prove that would have been my approach. so unknown was my work on beauty that shortly after nehamas's book appeared, the stanford encyclopedia approached me to do their entry on beauty. despite my misgivings, i associated his work and mine as signs of a renaissance of beauty as a theme in philosophy, and of this approach to it particularly. i didn't pretend not to have read his book. i didn't nitpick or try to show why my book was better, and so on. it's good they didn't get nehamas to do it; his insistence on repressing all signs and memories of my book would have led to a skewed and decidedly self-congratulatory view of the terrain.
when his book appeared i emailed alexander nehamas at his princeton address along these lines: 'we really seem to be working along similar lines! we have books with the same title. we're both working along the same lines on beauty. our books have the same epigraph! we should connect more,' etc. no reply. sometimes it's hard to never have heard of someone or read his work; you've really got to delete a lot of stuff everywhere, especially in your brain.
i figured that the defense would be both sneering and peremptory. but here he just hanged himself. in other words, the defense is so obviously disingenuous that it is tantamount to a self-immolation. the outer shell of elitist arrogance combined with the inner knowledge of mediocrity creates expressions which just cannot be true: true to the facts, or true to the self. alexander nehamas was lost to himself decades ago when he entered into a performance, a simulation that would get him to the highest level of academia. 'i had never seen his book' is the point where the emptiness inside became explicitly external, where there wasn't anything inside anymore, just an automaton playing the Edmund N. Carpenter, II Class of 1943 Professor in the Humanities at Princeton University.
note to princeton faculty and admin: you are asking yourself whether that last paragraph is libelous. before you do that, why don't you try asking yourself whether it's true.
on the other hand, it is worth saying that the locus classicus of this sort of view is plato's symposium, which is certainly central to both books. and of course, nehamas has worked on that material throughout his career. also our theories are certainly not identical; i'd describe them as being in the same family: again, one fundamentally unrepresented in the literature on beauty since burke. we are interested in very different artworks, and so on. the texts do not overlap.
the biggest difference to my mind is precisely nehamas's centralization of the concept of happiness. i regard happiness as one of the worst things that ever happened to philosophy: not even a concept, but a variable or blank or packing crate where each person or philosopher just tosses everything he thinks he wants. thinks he wants, because for example if there really were any person who only wanted maximum pleasure and minimum pain he would be a non-human monstrosity. anyway, then we call the crate happiness. i actually do not think the concept has ever done anything for anyone, but it has made many philosophies into useless circling around a hole into which have been lobbed a random collection of whatever that person thinks they want. the very worst case is aristotle, who keeps throwing all sorts of dimensions of life and values and so on into the empty pit of eudaimonia. anyone can talk for hours about what aristotle means by eudaimonia. ask them what he means by it, like a fairly compact definition rather than a three-hour lecture, and i'm telling you, no one has any idea what he means. neither did he. he could do all of the nicomachean ethics better if he just forgot that empy-ass shit. so i went with 'longing'; it's a certain sort of very fundamental human experience, unlike 'happiness', which is just a blank song from a charlie brown special. actually, i would attack nehamas's book on many grounds, but that would be the first.
Peter Catapano and Simon Critchley, editors
The Stone Reader: Modern Philosophy in 133 Arguments
724 pp. Liveright
Peter Catapano, on the first page of this volume, canvasses some of the things philosophers have been thought to be, or have declared themselves to be: "Truth Seeker. Rationalist. Logician. Metaphysician. Troublemaker. Tenured professor. Scholar. Visionary. Madperson. Gadfly. Seer."
As I suppose will be the case with many of my fellow Rationalists and Madmen, my initial response to this collection of essays from the New York Times' philosophy blog was: where's my damned essay? How come they're not calling me to do that piece on the Hillary Clinton campaign as seen through the lens of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus? Why would they run Freddy? Christ, he wasn't even that good in grad school.
This review requires a disclaimer. I've been pitching the New York Times op-ed page for thirty years. I've hit a few times, missed dozens. I have written many essays intended for the Stone and tossed them at Catapano, the editor of the blog and co-editor of the book. Sometimes I don't even get a response, though they've taken a few. The first thing I looked for in the table of contents was my own name, for that is what a true Metaphysician does; I got stuck part way through Descartes' Meditations, and concluded that I am the only person of whose existence I can be objectively certain. But I do want confirmation of that in a by-line.
Failing to find it, I am justifiably resentful, for I am an exquisitely beautiful writer as well as a slash-and-burn logic-chopping machine who can destroy anyone, including the editorial staff at the New York Times. Also, if there's one thing we Logicians can agree on, it's that I'm right and the mediocrities they are running are wrong.
On the other hand, it may well be that if I write an extremely positive review, praising Catapano and Critchley's amazing acuity, they will view my next submission with more sympathy.
Writing this review, then, is a complex and difficult negotiation between my envy and my ambition, a kind of psychological and ethical crossroads, a dilemma fit for a Tenured Professor such as myself. I have arrived at a solution: I will scrupulously conceal all these factors as I write; that is, I will approach the task with unimpeachable objectivity.
Alright, I do think the Stone is one of the best things to happen to philosophy in some time. If you are yourself a professor or author of philosophy texts, you may have noticed that no one reads philosophy. Well, this may well have something to do with the way we're writing. But the Stone is not only a useful forum and provocation among philosophy professors; it is one of the few places that 'the ordinary reader' might run into the ideas of Thomas Nagel or Slavoj Zizek, Linda Martin Alcoff or Avitall Ronell.
(Nevertheless, the thing is white-male-dominated, which is perhaps reflective of the composition of academic philosophy, but for all that impoverishing. In general, the female philosophers address issues of gender, the black philosophers those of race. I was struck, looking at the table of contents, by the fact that my profession looks a little like American television in 1965.)
In addition, the Stone has noticeably increased the ideological, intellectual, and stylistic range of the Times's opinion section as a whole, which I regard as gratuitously narrow. It has made philosophers regularly part of the public discourse in a way we rarely have been in recent decades. It is a contribution both to philosophy and to opinion journalism.
Some of these people (Nagel, for example) are both extremely impressive Scholars and good prose stylists. But I picture Catapano's struggles with many others and the process by which clotted academese, presupposing that its audience knows dozens of relatively obscure books, becomes something that the readership of the New York Times could want to read and could get something definite from.
In this the Stone is succeeding, I believe. I would hardly have believed it possible. I read most of these essays as they came out, but seeing them all together in this big cube of a book impresses me again with the range of issues addressed, the approaches taken, the variety of voices (albeit a bit toned down by the thorough and extremely competent editorial process).
There are continentals and analytics. There are discussions of the classics and direct addresses to contemporary issues. These essays constitute relatively accessible, relatively clear, relatively well-written ways to introduce students, for example, or my Mom (a faithful reader of the Stone), to the ideas of Peter Singer, Phil Kitcher, or Roger Scruton.
Perhaps a prof here and there regards some or even all of these essays as mere popularizations, or simplistic presentations of complex ideas. Indeed, Truth Seeker Brad Leiter often digresses from such declarations as that Thomas Nagel is the 14th most important philosopher since 1945 to describe the Stone as "an embarrassment" and likes to put scare quotes around its self-description as a 'philosophy' blog. I think he's missing some excellent material, as well as the point of the thing.
We Seers are going to have to come down to earth a little if we want any sort of cultural influence, or if we think that philosophical ways of thinking could be of use in the public sphere or of interest to the general literate population. The Stone, I believe, makes this difficult negotiation extremely well, encourages philosophers to make it themselves, and edits them toward it in a constructive way. Even the length of the essays (1200-1700 words on average, perhaps) makes them relatively inviting to someone who does not want to spend a month or two struggling through Kitcher's last book.
Even for philosophy professors, often specialized in one sub-discipline or even in a single issue or figure, this book may yield a better sense of how philosophy is being pursued in corners of the profession other than the ones they inhabit.
It also yields a responsible vision of the terrain of philosophy today insofar as this can possibly be mapped in relatively ordinary language. Speaking of Logicians, I recently tried to read Timothy Williamson's book Modal Logic as Metaphysics. Now, I was trained in analytic philosophy for a decade, can read a modal logic formula, and am familiar with the basic approaches in the literature to the semantics of modal expressions. That book was too hard for me.
I do not believe Williamson could compress that book into a Stone. But here he is, writing lucidly and accessibly about naturalism, scientism, and the scientific method. Then Alex Rosenberg gives a reply. Then Williamson fires back, quite getting the better of the exchange.
It is a good model of philosophical argumentation, one I intend to try on my introductory students next Fall. I don't think I would build an intro course around this book: the overall effect is too scattershot, the voices and positions too various. But I think it could be an extremely useful supplement to such a course. Have you ever tried to run through Kant's Prolegomena with undergraduates? Sometimes you have to, but I do not recommend it overall. After I did, I'd want to give them something in a contemporary voice that shows that some of these questions are still vital and even applicable. There are a number of essays here that might help me do that.
The Stone Reader includes 133 contributions arranged topically into such clusters as "Rethinking Thinkers" (including Spinoza, Kant, and Kierkegaard), "Old Problems, New Spins" (hence my Hillary/Ludwig pitch), evolutionary ethics (contributors include Edward O. Wilson and Huw Price), "What is Faith?" (where one finds Samuel Scheffler and the flamboyantly brilliant Tim Crane, to whom I'm always pitching reviews), "Black, White or Other" (including Robert Gooding-Williams and George Yancy), and the meaning of America (if any). We will all have our favorites and our whipping boys (again, they're mostly boys), whether we went to grad school with them or not. I find Gary Gutting's contributions rather plodding, but then I already know a lot of what he's trying to explain to a wide readership. His contributions are often solid reformulations of, excellent introductions to, the areas they discuss. Some of his essays might be among the first I'd try on students, or send as a link to non-philosophy-professor friends and colleagues interested in the issues in philosophy of religion to which Gutting gravitates.
As well, there are some lovely curiosities here that made me more optimistic about the current range of what philosophers are doing and the directions we might head from here. For example, a personal essay by Ronell brings together Jacques Derrida and seasonal affective disorder. For another, Lisa Guenther describes her own testimony to a U.S. Senate committee on the effects of solitary confinement. The philosophical frame around the issue is relatively light-handed; the emphasis is on the real horror. But philosophical ethics informs her discussion in a way that I think intrinsically illuminates the issue and also shows the relevance of ethics to urgent contemporary questions.
The Stone began in 2010, and already many excellent pieces have appeared in it that might have come too late to make the volume, for example George Yancy's long series of interviews with various thinkers on race, and his own "Dear White America." I hope that the thing persists long enough to produce a series of volumes, perhaps focusing on sub-disciplines or particular issues in philosophy. Such a thing might indeed by an extremely useful text for a course on ethics, or philosophy of religion, or critical race theory. Given the blog's relative popularity, that is likely.
It's a hard thing they're doing at the Stone, and I think they are doing it about as well as it could be done, except for one embarrassing symptom of ineptitude: like so many prestigious venues today, they desperately need more me: Crispin Sartwell, Visionary.
tim crane's response at the times literary supplement, more or less: we love it! masterful! could you delete the jokes?
i think what kills me about people annexing my ideas is that it is so easy not to, and that can just make your work cooler and better and more creative, right? these are things i would never do, because i want to know what people have said and are saying, and then i want to attack it or build on it. all zagzebski had to say was, as crispin sartwell argued (last year in the journal of philosophy), if a theory of justification must be meta-justified on the grounds that it is truth-conducive, that beliefs that are justified according to the theory are likelier to be true than beliefs that are not justified according to it (actually even that is not quite adequate as the exact statement; i am not going to hack at the weeds right here), then it is either redundant or incoherent. now, this helps me make the following argument. a lot of her work seems to depend on this one idea; that work could still be creative or innovative or important, even if it was built on my idea. nothing could be easier. let's say the nehamas situation is as i describe it. nothing could be easier than to mention my work and immunize yourself from the charge of appropriation (sartwell has developed a related view in his suck-ass book six names of beauty. even just that would be enough; i wouldn't have a problem after that. i obviously do not own sappho (no man did).)
so i say the (alleged) fact that zagzebski and nehamas were influenced by my work, and systematically attempted not to notice that they were, or pretended that they weren't, shows something terrible at their heart. they needed to present themselves as profound innovators, so they needed a new basic idea. i can quite see how i could be a source for that; i've literally had hundreds of them. but because i actually am creative, and confident of my creativity, i have to know, and i want to know, what is out there that i could build on or annihilate or turn inside out, so i can make the basic creative move at all. that they can't do that, yet want to appear in public as though they can by erasing their sources, shows that they can't in fact do very creative work, that they are aware of that fact, and are pretending to be someone (me, to be precise) who can do creative work.
so, i'd say any work produced by a person like that is bound to be mediocre and dishonest. and i don't pretend to be the only grad student or tenured prof who has good ideas. people who do that once do it all the time; that is what their scholarship is and their public persona. i very seriously would check every word these people ever wrote or spoke for charlatanry and appropriation. it's there, believe me.
continuing with the thing below, there have been cases in which novels had some sort of practical effect. apparently goethe's sorrows of werther caused a little suicide outbreak among romantic-era boys. it's often said that uncle tom's cabin increased abolitionist sentiment in the northern us. other than that....
as to the world-shaping cultural centrality of poetry: think about that for just a second. maybe you had a case with virgil or dante, not with the 17 people who read poetry right now.
after a few such cases, the thing consists of vague yet implausible quasi-assertion: novels remake the human personality. novels invented empathy. now, if you think so, i want you to try to square up and notice that the human personality is hard as hell to remake. it cannot be done by laying in bed with a book, even if you seem to yourself to have been profoundly moved and come to some new insights. say you've read a hundred really fine novels in your reading life. i guess your personality's been reforged a hundred times. funny, but you seem more or less just the same as you did last year. i'm telling you that these claims are ridiculous, and a realistic assessment and defense of literature would be much more valuable than a raft of hyperjive, and much less discrediting to its proponents.
the greatest literary novels of the twentieth century had a small, ephemeral effect on a tiny percentage of the population. ulysses remade nothing and no one, except the world of upper-end novel writing and publishing. why you want to pretend otherwise, and why people nod along as you do: really i have no idea. try to say what's true because issuing these giant gaseous clouds of hooey discredits your rationality, self-examination, and claim to be in contact with reality.
i'd say the same about the crazed shit people used to say about painting: oh, "picasso remade the visible world". not. at. all. you might squint funny coming out of the picasso blockbuster; but that's all over by the time you get to the wine bar. maybe these crazed claims are strategies to increase funding. maybe they're intended to get billionaires to make grants, by making what is happening in the arts venue seem superincredibly important, indeed making it seem like god. i love paintings. i go to museums and look at them. and the visible world ticks on just as it did before. that's not under my control, or matisse's, or even all of ours together. the way the world looks is the world's doing.
as to the idea that fiction is the repository of cultural memory, or its essence or something: think about what you just said, ok? because that means our cultural memory is fictional. i'm not saying our 'cultural memory' is not fictional, but of course then its not memory at all, but fantasy. plus the novel is not to a significant extent even the source of our memorious fantasies. but it's still a good thing to write and read good novels, alright? just not the thing you appear to think it is.
writing is a craft. it can produce well-made or interesting objects. it can be an absorbing process, important or central to the life of the writer, pleasurable or challenging to readers. that is enough, right? because that's all you get.
pity poor dwight garner: trying to review a book he loves but cannot even quote, because he's writing for little cowards who are scared of certain words and little censors who refuse to publish them. really, if you are a book critic and you can't even quote what you think is the best lit, you need to find a publication where you can. also i think probably the nytimes has no business writing about books at all if they can't be a little less scared or what's in them. seriously, if you tremble in fear at certain combinations of letters you shouldn't write or publish at all. leave the language to people who are able boldly to sally forth and use the alphabet.
here is another case, in the form of an unpublished letter to the editor by henry:
In “Publish and Cherish” (Book Review, Aug. 24), Rachel Shteir reviews The Most Dangerous Book, which is about the legal censorship that James Joyce’s Ulysses faced in its day. She writes, “Quoting Joyce’s notoriously bawdy letters to [his wife] Nora (many of which cannot be printed in this newspaper) is required for anyone writing about him in our era.”
Did the Times’ editor overlook the glaring irony of that sentence? Ms. Shteir is writing about Joyce in our era, yet the Times will not allow her to quote from the letters, even as it allows her to state that quoting from them is required. And why won’t the Times allow her to quote from the letters? It has no reason. Its policy is arbitrary and juvenile. Surely it is not protecting anyone from exposure to naughty words, because such words can hurt no one, including children, all of whom are exposed to them from a young age. And, of course, children would not be reading Ms. Shteir’s book review.
If the Times is concerned about offending puritanical readers, then it might consider that such readers, like children, are unlikely to be reading a review of a book about James Joyce. Furthermore, the Timesregularly quotes politicians who say things far more substantively offensive than anything that Joyce ever wrote. Why does the Times single out naughty words for its concern?
i guess i sort of stop blogging when i'm writing other stuff. anyway, i'm supposed to conduct a little faculty discussion today on ian buruma's theater of cruelty, a collection of his essays having to do with war and books on war from the new york review of books. i've been reading the nyrb since i was a child, and so i read most of these essays as they came out. i have to say they kind of slid by without making a big impression. i was vaguely impressed by buruma's nice prose style and his knowledge especially of matters having to do with ww2 and the holocaust. reading a stream of his essays together makes me realize something: i think that, despite these strengths, ian buruma is not very good.
in every single essay he takes the 'on the one hand; on the other hand' approach. this gives an impression of balance and rationality. however, almost every single time out, it amounts to this: flat contradictions. was leni riefenstahl a nazi monster? yes and no. were her films propaganda? yes and no. is there a difference between art and propaganda? yes and no. he of course discusses sontag's famous essay on riefenstahl. even if sontag was wrong, she was extremely definite. was sontag right about riefenstahl, according to buruma? yes and no. (but buruma really does this: he slut-shames leni mercilessly, all but resorting to the word 'ho', a whole line of attack that is irrelevant to anything else in the essay or in the issues. he's more generous, say, or just not at all worried, about the sex life of jean cocteau.) or: was the right approach in occupied france to resist, collaborate, or pretend the whole thing wasn't really happening? yes and no; yes and no; yes and no. every essay does this. it's pitiful: weak-kneed as well as logically ridiculous: cowardly. but solidly written.
also it is one measure of what i feel is a sad decline in the nyrb: sontag to buruma is a slide from excellence to mediocrity. or how about this month: we've got michael tomasky on the republican presidential field. tomasky is a partisan hack: like a left bill o'reilly but less fun. every sentence is a collage of weasel words and pejorative bitch-slaps. there's not a moment of actual dialogue with people on the other side, just a constant drumbeat about stupid the other side is (=how smart we are; michael tomasky's great theme is how smart michael tomasky is). unlike buruma, there's nothing particularly good about tomasky's prose. anyway, i don't think it's really an intellectual publication anymore.
i am often frustrated that my books rarely get reviewed; i know a lot of authors who feel that way. but i did find a nice review of political aesthetics from the journal of aesthetics and art criticism, by paul voice from bennington.
i love the praise, of course, and he praises the book for strengths i do think it has. and i also think that his criticisms poke some of the weak spots. it is true that i have a hard time with the concept of 'the aesthetic'. i certainly have been worrying about it for decades, but even when a student asked me today in my beauty class what i meant by 'aesthetic' (properties, aspects, experiences) i fumbled around. and it does have a tendency to get bigger and bigger until it's not surprising that it engulfs everything. i am not satisfied with the general characterizations of the aesthetic i gave in the book, and i have no pop-up definition. but of course i could and do say something and then something else and so on about it; i don't think it's completely nebulous.
i'm working on a review of a book called british ethical theorists from sidgwick to ewing. admittedly, this is the sort of thing jeeves would hold up in front of his face just to intimidate bertie, and perhaps it is not primarily intended to provide amusement. however, it has got me reading things that i had long neglected or forgotten. i have to say, it's hard to imagine clearer or more solidly-constructed work in ethics than that of h.a. prichard or w.d. ross. one re-discovery: the very excellent five types of ethical theory, by c.d. broad. it is written with extreme confidence and a lot of flair.
when i did the index for obscenity, anarchy, reality in the early '90s, i thought i had invented the comical index, or at least had done the first one in an academic book, or for heaven's sake the first in an academic philosophy book. (you can actually check out the index in the look-inside bit of the amazon page; no one but randy auxier really noticed, though.) but frigging c.d. broad was there ahead of me. some sub-entries:
Bentham, Jeremy; tentatively compared to God, 160
God; may possibly be a Utilitarian, 81-82
Green, T.H.; his power of producing prigs, 144
Hegel, G.F.W.; was a philosophical disaster, 10
Paul, Saint; less widely appreciated than Mr. Charles Chaplin, 173
Russell, Hon. B.A.W.; his inordinate respect for psychoanalysis, 24
Socrates; less widely appreciated than Mr. Charles Chaplin, 173
etc. also this is an artifact of an era when a professor could actually express bold, slashing opinions definitely and amusingly. we long ago transcended that era.
For Crispin and Co....Merry Baby Jesus Birthday and stuff....
Speaking of which, here is the offical Crusader AXE position on CIA torture and such abominations. While I think it's a pretty good piece as these things go, as often happens with VetsToday, the comments are the best part. When a column gets that response, I feel like Sheldon Cooper, doomed to spend my life teaching evolution to fundamentalists in east Texas. On the other hand, they're pretty funny, if you don't mind feeling amazed at the stupidity of a hunk of the American population. Here's a personal favorite --
Since the massive Rhine meadows slaughter of 1.8 million Germans after WWII by your Rat Bastard leader Eisenhower torture has been a part of the US military efforts ever since! You rat bastard Yanks are far worse than the NAZIS ever were they were using these techniques for maybe ten to twelve years You Yankee Rat Bastards have been at it for 200 plus years and you Rat Bastards are proud of it! How long will you Rat Bastards remain in the sewers and latrine pits of humanity?
Enjoy! good luck! and all that stuff...
pico iyer in the times book review, arguing once again that geniuses are above the little moral rules or everyday decency that of course ought to govern others. the revival of this really quite stupid modernist hoohah is disturbing in a minor way, and you'd have to think that underlying it is iyer's justification for being an asshole to his kids tonight or whatever. one thing to notice: all the geniuses who transcend the petty irriatations of treating people decently in iyer's thing are men. also, let me just mention that in some cases the assholery may well be one of the main reasons we're thinking that someone is a genius: iyer obviously expects geniuses to be assholes, and it is but a slight shift to start regarding assholes as geniuses. so in virtue of what was steve jobs a genius? maybe writing all that great code and designing all those sleek devices? no that wasn't his role. his role was to be an asshole. oh, lucian freud was a disgusting human being who made disgusting and mindlessly overrated art. but he was a late-breaking modernist genius-asshole so it almost doesn't mater what the paintings look like as long as he was abusing people all day.
"All of us know — we almost expect — that an artist will use up everyone he meets in the hope that the payoff in the public sphere will make up for casualties in the private." wait, all of us know what? i almost fucking expect, excuse me? oh you know i've known some very good artists, writers, thinkers and stuff: do i figure they should be as vicious as they are good or something? i am dating a very good painter, for example. do i expect - or, like iyer's happy victims - want, to be used up, along with everyone else? christ why would i expect that? art is supposed to require casualties, like barrel bombs cause collateral damage, only why that should be is rather mysterious. but then you'll be able to recognize the geniuses by the scorched corpses in their wake. that makes it easier because, um, sometimes it's hard to tell from the work.
the moral impunity of artists is something we added circa 1860 and deleted circa 1960, but which people still yearn for: the genius as sadist, audience as masochist. it is a devastating reflection on the people who think this way, incompatible with even rudimentary good taste, for example. really, i do believe it has led to extreme critical mistakes, as when you fall in love with the persona of a picasso, a joyce, or a wittgenstein, and feel the glow of the morally exempt superhuman who lies behind it. then the objects take on a sadistic aura and you prostrate yourself before them (think of the women who had to be sacrificed to make hemingway's novels, or get picasso past the blue period! the casualties were worth it, though, because if picasso hadn't made women suffer, there would be no art. really this is the way this line of thought tends). this i believe makes it difficult to see the work clearly and place it plausibly into a normal human context which we might co-inhabit. the work, i have to say, is almost unbelievably disappointing relative to the standard, but even if it wasn't....
the worse you are, the better you write. i would like iyer to reflect on whether that is actually borne out in his experience, and i would suggest that he reflect on why he would want to believe something like that. according to iyer, the question of why great artists are fuckwads was already ancient when yeats asked it. i would like to see some evidence of that. in fact show me a clear example of anything of that sort before 1800 and i will be momentarily chastened.
this genius crap needs to be over, and iyer's piece is as good an argument for shooting geniuses on sight as for celebrating them as transhuman god-monsters. actual human beings produced these items, and no argument gets them out of the demand to treat people kindly, or try to keep their promises, or to not rape people, etc. i think you had better paint a lot lot better than freud to justify being freud, or really it doesn't matter how you paint. and insofar as iyer is saying 'i am exempt from decency because i am working on a novel', he is making an argument for pistol-whipping literary novelists, as if we needed another argument.
maybe other professions should take the philip roth-v.s.naipul approach: being an ethics professor isn't an ethics contest! i just had a good theory, but that required abusing 17 people. oops, sorry sweetie but i was out last night with two call girls and an ounce of blow, again. it is the demand of my work! but you will be happy to be a casualty.
The items here probably the represent the 'light' or fluffy side of my authorship, which might be unfortunate, because the light side is also a rather dark side. They range from a personal essay on addiction to a satire on race to an amazing "solution" to the question of the meaning of life itself or, thinking about it from another angle, to the question of the meaning itself of life, or perhaps to the question itself of life's meaning.
The centrality of the arts for understanding history and contemporary culture, and our coming rapture/damnation by comedy in the Cynical ecstasy at the end of history: these are related underlying themes of many of these essays. Often I apply ideas and taxonomies from art history and aesthetics to various sorts of materials, for example to gender and sexual orientation, or to popular music forms, or to the structure of history, and then try to let the material re-map those areas of inquiry. I don't insist that any particular one of these essays constitutes philosophy or aesthetics or anything else; I've tried to follow from thing to thing, idea to idea, fiasco to calamity, rather than worry about where precisely I was in the disciplinary maze.
Some of these essays reflect engagement with stage and parlor magic and sleight of hand; a number discuss or obviously reflect obsession and addiction; a number display a lifelong love of popular music; a number reflect engagements with my favorite writers and questions about writing. All of these obviously have various autobiographical connections, and I suppose they are all attempts to determine what you can see from here, wherever 'here' is now: including, white heterosexual middle-aged person; aficionado or enthusiast; daddy, American, me, etc. I'm happy to let these connections emerge explicitly, or not.
As I've gone on writing, I have tried to get less showboaty and more obviously committed to subject-matters other than myself, though it might not seem that way. Nevertheless 'I' weaves in and out here, and I do think that even academic writing - which this may be or not - should be more personal, insofar as persons, with their passions and pathologies, still lurk behind it or create it in some way. The 'I' changes in different essays, but I am not going to be precious about it: by 'I' I mean me. I mean me perhaps at different moments or moods; certainly 'Detritus' was written at a nadir, and I'm doing better now, and would have something happier to say about myself. I am content even if uncomfortable leaving that essay as a trace of then. It's not, on the other hand, that I'm 'a different person' than I was in 2008. If only. But you know how we end up being transformed without meaning to be, under necessity, like ramshackle ships of Theseus.
Most of these texts were read in some form as lectures/multi-media extravaganzas; others were pitched to various sorts of publication with varying success. Thanks to Muhlenberg College, Slippery Rock University, Notre Dame, East Tennessee State, Southern Illinois, Concordia College, Cal State Chico, Oregon State, Gettysburg College, the Nordic Society for Aesthetics, Duquesne, the International Country Music Conference, and others who hosted me on occasions when this material was presented. Parts of pieces appeared in Harper's, the Los Angeles Times, The Rolling Stones and Philosophy, How Does it Feel to be a White Problem?, and Tricksters and Punks of Asia. Each paper has been at least somewhat revised, though they are still to be taken as representing the time they were composed. For example "How to Escape" was written before the killing of Osama bin Laden. In some cases, related blog entries from eyeofthestrom.blogs.com or related journalism by me from various sources have been annexed.
Near the end of his life, my father, Franklin Sartwell, gave me editions of Mencken's autobiography and Beirce's Devil's Dictionary with an air of passing on key bits of family lore. For him, as for his father - both newspapermen in DC - Mencken was the greatest of their own kind, or what they aspired to be: irascible, politically perverse, hilarious hard-drinking bastards who knew everything, especially about writing. Also Frank took to me to see the Seldom Scene, Thursdays at the Red Fox Inn in Bethesda, Maryland.
For better and disaster, the effects of Judith Bradford and Marion Winik on the thought and prose style of this book, and the experiences represented, are obvious, at least to me. I think Arthur Danto's influence is pervasive; oh, probably Richard Rorty's too. I read Heinrich Wölfflin's Principles of Art History in high school and am still battering my old Dover edition; amazing how something like that can infest your thinking. Throughout, art historical terms, such as stylistic terms or periods ('soul', for example, or 'classical') should be understood as sketched out in the lexicon, pp. .Thanks to Andrew Kenyon for collaboration on this volume. The city of Baltimore and the countryside of South Central Pennsylvania. The Maryland Institute College of Art and Dickinson College.
As usual, you should blame those people and institutions, rather than the author, for all the infelicities, fatuities, solecisms, barbarisms, contradictions, absurdities, and blunders you find here.