me via phil mcreynolds, formulating the basic orientation of entanglements.
this morning i finished a submittable draft of entanglements: a system of philosophy at around 210k words. the basic outline is six chapters: ontology, theory of truth, epistemology; then the axiology: ethics, aesthetics, and political philosophy. it's the first such system since samuel alexander's space, time, and deity fell stillborn from the press 100 years ago or whatever it may be. or maybe not. anyhow, now i've just got to tack on the kant/schelling/hegel/schopenhauer style preface: 'Since the very dawn of time, members of our amazing species have wondered about this and that. Well, ain't gots to worry no mo, cause ole Uncle Crispy has figured this sucker out, in a way that makes rational disagreement conceptually impossible. In the book you are about to read, all knowledge is comprehended in a new rigorous science, the universe reaches perfect self-consciousness, and history is annihilated into ecstasy. Or just about, anyway."
dwight garner can be so, so good. here's a line: "You turn each page the way a rat hits the little lever for another pellet of crack." so, lucian freud, 'probably-the-most-important-painter-of-the-late-etc-period,' was certainly a grotesque monster. really some lovely moments:
A boxer when young, Freud loved to thump or head-butt his fellow Britons. One of his daughters recalls, “Dad used to hit taxi drivers and punched people in the street if he didn’t like the look of them.”
Freud leapt on women (and occasionally men) throughout his life as if he were a flying squirrel in paint-flecked work boots.
In Mr. Greig’s account, he could be a sadist. “He became quite vicious, really hurt breasts and things,” a lover comments. He liked anal sex with women, an acquaintance reports, because it was redolent of utter domination.
now, am i going to use such things to bash the art of lucian freud? that would be so typical! because i've never seen what all the fuss was about. but here's what i think is disturbing: i think this stuff is actually part of why he is regarded as 'the most important painter.' by 1973 we were running out of gigantic modernist art heroes; picasso must have been off someplace expiring. pop and conceptualism and whatever were cool and all, but they didn't give you the painter-god: the modernist colossus who re-makes the visible world. so people yearned, and they yearn still. well, as this makes perfectly clear, it is a masochist yearning: utter domination is the mark of genius, expressed in an anal assault or in a masterpiece.
the bacon/freud mini-renaissance in england was like a late efflorescence, a last gasp, because for one thing england never quite got on top of modernism and drove it at all, really: the bloomsbury group were as much late-blooming aesthetes as figures of high modernism (clive bell or roger fry's art criticism appeared merely quaint in paris even as it was written, i should think). they came late, partly because of that. these two guys were like modernism's last chance, the great white hope in a sea of post-modern crap. i'm sure people wanted to build a revival around them, but i think it just petered out. let's add henry moore, maybe. really modernism unfolded at different rates and of course different looks in different places: teens and after and earlier in some parts of europe; 40s/50s in new york/ca; 60s/70 in england. by then, they might have been the only vital fresh forces still doing that with a good conscience.
at all these moments, a basic driving idea of late romanticism/modernism is that you can't judge art morally, that great art is above morality = l'art pour l'art. that was, among other things, an argument against censorship. so that's good. but however, it gets slightly extended, which is where it goes horribly wrong: it apparently entails in the wrong hands that the great artist is outside morality. so, we think we are finding these monster-gods, like they're a quasi-natural phenomenon; genius just seizes them, another reason that they are above our petty little moral rules about sexually assaulting people or whatever it may be. but we are also teaching everyone that to be a genius, you'd better start acting like an unbelievable asshole. and then, though garner doesn't exactly do this right there, we actually accept them as geniuses in part due to their assholery: the bigger the asshole, the bigger the genius. then you get these myths in which it is next to impossible even to see the actual artistic achievement, if any, so stupefyingly do they radiate domination that all you do is acquiesce. we created, insisted upon, constructed, the monsters who are, you know, doing us.
also, the modernist babygod is a psychological anomaly of some sort: diagnosable, dude. so, they're suicidally depressed (van gogh), they're extreme substance abusers (don't get me started), they're literally paranoid schizophrnenics like john nash or whatever. so it does come in various flavors: tormented little toulouse-lautrec! the young doomed poet who radiates sexual heat like a furnace, say verlaine, and who suffers simultaneously with all maladies. the sadist hyper-masculine godling (picasso, hemingway, de kooning, beckett) is only one such flavor, and maybe the important thing is just to be bent: your symptoms: they are your talent. madness lets you see what conventional people miss. but the sadist godling is also a central bit: i think the dominance and submission relation is central to the experience of art on and off, but never more than here. as kierkegaard might say, the actual artistic genius might just as likely be indistinguishable from a grocer or an accountant. at any rate, don't let this make you think that going mad or simulating madness or shooting all the heroin you can find will in itself enhance your craft.
really you're under full anal assault right there in the museum, at least once you accept the critical apparatus, the decades of praise that make resistance socially impractical.
yes, i'm up at nytimes.com on arthur danto today. ole danto, quine, and rorty - yeah i can feel them right here with me, on this silver eagle rolling through the night.
that is a perfect performance.
sometimes it all comes together: the concept, the cover, the contents, the supreme blurber. it occurs to me that i'm being hoaxed, but there does actually appear to be a book by mary ann caws, actually entitled 'the modern art cookbook'. i feel the publisher should be identified: reaktion, distributed by the university of chicago press. i salute everyone involved, from soup to nuts.
"Who wouldn't want to taste Allen Ginsberg's borscht, Frida Kahlo's red snapper, or Cezanne's baked tomatoes? Mary Ann Caws has assmbled an intoxicating melange of reminiscences, art works, poems, and recipes. This savory compendium offers imaginative satisfactions of the highest order. I can't wait to bake David Hockney's strawberry cake!" (Wayne Koestenbaum, nyrb ad)
one of our great achievements as a species is the rhetorical question. indeed, this is what separates us from the higher animals. it is how we make sense of our lives. our lives are rhetorical questions, aren't they? but in the history of homo rhetoricus, there has never been a better rhetorical question than "Who wouldn't want to taste Allen Ginsberg's borscht?" and who wouldn't want to taste it again, coming back up? really, i want allen ginsberg to feed me his borscht from a turkey baster. who wouldn't?? but since it's too late for that, this book is the next best thing: it's like being orally raped by picasso, really, and who wouldn't want that? reaktion might want to try a companion volume: paintings of the great chefs. who wouldn't want to witness gordon ramsey's foray into post-fauvism? for now, we'll have to make due with fondling de kooning's dumplings.
update: actually, on reflection, i think koestenbaum is rather deliciously undermining the premise of this book while also parodying the blurb form. frida kahlo's red snapper.
here's a blurb (from an ad in the times literary supplement).
George Minkoff is one of the bravest men alive. He has gambled that a three-part epic novel about 17th century Colonial America - written in a language that mimics the speech of the time - can hold the attention of 21st century readers.
george minkoff could have jumped on a grenade or something, but instead he sat with a computer on his lap, typing. if only he'd chosen the grenade. i'm not too impressed with the searing honesty and transcendent courage of memoirists revealing their promiscuity, drug abuse, and low self-esteem either; it's a thin line between unbelievable physical courage and compulsive exhibitionism, and maybe after the millionth person does it in a herd the risks have been reduced. it takes supernatural courage to compose a sestina, in this day and age, or a bold new cookbook. 'like diana nyad paddling about among the sharks, hayley mchale wrote semi-sweet sex and hot chocolate without securing an advance'.
just to take a momentary break from direct treason, i've been working on the american cynics (my personal peirce, james, and dewey; my three stooges of the apocalypse: twain, bierce and mencken). one text i can really recommend as characteristic, problematic, and brilliant, is the american credo by mencken and his relatively frequent collaborator the drama critic george jean nathan (1920; revised edition 1921). oh quotes of course!
here is one of several texts in which twain develops his response to darwin. i do actually regard it as an important advance in our conceptions of evolutionary biology:
And so I find that we have descended and degenerated from some far ancestor,- some microscopic atom wandering at its pleasure between the mighty horizons of a drop of water perchance,- insect by insect, animal by animal, reptile by reptile, down the long highway of smirchless innocence, till we have reached the bottom stage of development - nameable as the Human Being. Below us - nothing. Nothing but the Frenchman. ("Man's Place in the Animal World" )
Truth shifts and changes like a cataract of diamonds; its aspect is never precisely the same at two successive instants. But error flows down the channel of history like some great stream of lava or infinitely lethargic glacier. It is the one relatively fixed thing in a world of chaos. It is, perhaps, the one thing that gives human society the small stability that it needs, amid all the oscillation of a gelatinous cosmos, to save it from the wreck that ever menaces. Without their dreams men would have fallen upon and devoured one another long ago--and yet every dream is an illusion, and every illusion is a lie. The American Credo, p. 3
the bit of that i want to emphasize is this: Truth shifts and changes like a cataract of diamonds.
Past. That part of Eternity with some small fraction of which we have a slight and regrettable acquaintance. A moving line called the Present parts it from an imaginary period known as the Future. These two grand divisions of Eternity, of which the one is continually effacing the other, are entirely unlike. The one is dark with sorrow and disappointment, the other bright with prosperity and joy. The Past is the region of sobs, the Future is the realm of song. In the one crouches Memory, clad in sackcloth and ashes, mumbling penitential prayer; in the sunshine of the other Hope flies with a free wing, beckoning to temples of success and bowers of ease. Yet the Past is the Future of yesterday, the Future is the Past of to-morrow. They are one - the knowledge and the dream. (Bierce, Devil's Dictionary)
bierce is really best consumed in smal doses. oy it's a bile tsunami! but that there is profound.
note on bierce, who no doubt was executed by zapata and villa as he simultaneously committed suicide and then disappeared into the hills with his inca squaw, here's my real theory. yo dumbass! he thought he could sell stories and get scoops about the situation in mexico. then, you know, something bad happened; he was near or in an unexpected engagement and suffered harm; montezuma's revenge. he's just the type to take a semi-stupid risk, not at all to commit suicide. deceased war correspondent: look you might only read a few of the texts, which is best, but you've always got to bear in mind that he himself made his living as a journalist throughout his post-military life. right? this is still the way people in the biz think: wow maybe i could sell a piece on this: do a query etc. no can you pay 500 and expenses? then you see if you can't work a similar deal for another piece for someone else (hearst, say), doubling up on expenses, etc. but this is the most positive thing you can say for his vision: too much pleasure in the things that cause his sardonic formulations to throw it over.
i'm working on a paper on my dissertation supervisor, richard rorty, for a conference in poland this summer. now when philosophers describe me, they often start with the fact that i was rorty's student. at slippery rock u last month i was introduced (among other things) as 'a student of richard rorty, the most famous american philosopher of the twentieth century.' this description of rorty shocked me a bit, actually, but rorty's now-posthumous presence just seems to increase all the time.
i often assert, which surprises people i guess, that i disagree with everything rorty ever said, adding that i frigging loved his persona of ironist/provocateur and that he was a conscientious supervisor despite the fact that the dissertation was incompatible with his whole schtick. and despite the fact that i did not at all share his politics either, which he knew perfectly well. and politics, it turned out more and more, was central to his persona and his philosophy. also when i was working with him (1985-89), he was going from significant figure to world-bestriding colossus; he was always jetting off to debate habermas or chill with derrida. yet he read my stuff quickly and pretty carefully. at the time i was pushing various versions of 'representative realism,' correspondence theory of truth, and so on: it was a mere reactionary stance (and rorty would have regarded it that way more than anyone; by that time he thought positions like that were boring), and i have abandoned these positions, even while maintaining a version of worldly realism and an anti-social conception of truth.
now, i have never really tried to refute rorty's philosophy or even argue with it in any direct or elaborate fashion, despite a bit of a stab in end of story. the reason for this is because everyone else in the world was already attacking him, and even though i thought they sometimes had good points, i have also been a bit protective. and all that attack is exactly what has made him a candidate for 'most famous american philosopher of the 20th century'; every attack has elevated his status, and if you do think his philosophy is mediocre or wrong or whatever, you're a fool to keep paying obsessive attention. meanwhile a strand of much more positive rorty-interpretation has emerged, especially since his death.
at any rate, i've been reading achieving our country (1997). now there is much to admire. for one thing, it does show the real moral seriousness that was there all the time underneath. also, the defense of left reform over left revolution, and the attack on marx (rorty defines his position as 'leftist anti-communism') are compelling, or could be compelling in debates within the left. but, since the man's dead, i might as well say it: the book also shows many of the problems with rorty's authorship. i'll give a couple of examples.
rorty there as everywhere else habitually lines up lists of names like that is an argument, and even keeps sort of asserting that his own philosophy is the future, because he's just narrated the history of modern philosophy to culminate in it. indeed, i think this was his primary argument for his positions, and the fact that it is irrelevant to their truth might cause one to reflect. see we labored under all this cartesianism, kantianism, foundationalism, 'representationalism,' 'logocentrism,' etc. but look, said rr, the most eminent philosophers of the twentieth century were all agreed that our experience of the world was linguistic all the down (and on all rorty's other basic teachings): are you really going to argue at once against the whole flow of intellectual history, or stand athwart it? (matter of fact i am. why not? but i wouldn't say i need to with regard to these doctrines.) athwart dewey, heidegger, wittgenstein, derrida, sellars, quine, brandom, davidson, all of whom said the same thing?
Dewey abandoned the idea that one can say how things really are, as opposed to how they might best be described in order to meet some particular human need. In this respect he is in agreement with Nietzsche, and with such critics of 'the metaphysics of presence' as Derrida and Heidegger. For all these philosophers, objectivity is a matter of intersubjective consensus among human beings, not of accurate representation of something nonhuman. Insofar as human beings do not share the same needs, they may disagree about what is objectively the case. But the resolution of such disagreement cannot be an appeal to the way reality, apart from any human need, really is. The resolution can only be political: one must use democratic institutions and procedures to conciliate these various needs, and thereby widen the range of consensus about how things are. (34-35)
so, you might think for a minute about whether nietzsche, for example, or heidegger, thought that "objectivity is a matter of intersubjective consensus among human beings". dude, you have got to be kidding; not only is that not their position; it's a position that cannot even be formulated on either of their terms. what role does 'objectivity' and its definition have in the philosophy of derrida, or any of these figures? it's true that in rorty's writings, all the people he admired just ended up saying what he wanted them to say without regard to what they did say. also it's true that this strategy - rorty's basic strategy - is a non-stop appeal to authority, and would be at least as fallacious as that would indicate even if the interpretations were better.
i just want to say that 'truth is whatever is polling well this week' is the very worst theory of truth ever articulated: you'd be better off with 'truth is whatever appears in a green font,' say. (see, now if you attack that view, you're begging the question, because after all the view itself appears in a green font and so is true according to itself.) and you would certainly be better off with the negation of rorty's theory. or this is my theory: truth is what your contemporaries torture you to death for saying. i also don't think that the pragmatic theory of truth is even vaguely plausible, but it is not as bad as rorty's theory. and his view that these are the same theory is false no matter what color the font. on the other hand, 'truth is what your contemporaries let you get away with saying' and all those incredibly dismissive formulations might just be a way of saying: this truth stuff is useless. let's talk about something else. he was just saying that truth is boring and the concept is really doing no work: certainly not at the abstract level of a theory or definition of truth. course the way he framed it made us all scream and refute, just a bonus for the playful strategy.
there is a defense of political correctness in the academy in achieving our country. and that is a completely typical rorty provocation; where most leftists pretend not to know what 'pc' means, rorty just embraces it, as he did 'bourgeois liberalism'; i'm telling you, at provocation, the man was an incomparable genius. and more widely, he gives an argument, or rather asserts, that the academy ought to be, or even by definition is, dominated by various leftist orthodoxies. now first of all, he portrays the left-right spectrum as an obviously valid trans-temporal structure for understanding political positions. i assert that it is a wacky conceptual mess that emerged in the nineteenth century, and that there's no hope for anyone to articulate a coherent position within it. also rorty has an egregiously simplistic and entirely tendentious conception of the left-right spectrum. "the right never thinks that anything much needs to be changed," he writes, for example. er, what?
or how about this: "It is doubtful whether the current critics of the universities who are called 'conservative intellectuals' deserve this description. For intellectuals are supposed to be aware of, and speak to, issues of social justice." that's just mind-numbing jive. i could define you out of the debate or your job entirely too, dick, by asserting that 'intellectuals are supposed to be x.' what are they supposed to be and by whom? well, i personally suppose that intellectuals are supposed to think freely even about such concepts as justice.
at any rate, with all that and much more, dick rorty is a beloved memory for me now. just that little sparkle in his eyes, that half smile, the shrug when someone attacked him, was more than worth the price of tuition. on a good day, he was playing, batting stuff back and forth, relishing disagreements, even vituperative ones. i actually think it was this playfulness and the apparent lack of seriousness that it apparently entails, that pissed people off as much as anything. seriously, you'd hit him with the decisive refutation you'd spent the last few months working up, and he'd just kind of smile and shrug and throw something intolerably meta back at ya. that sort of play is one of the things i always wanted from philosophy, and the extreme seriousness of most academics is inversely proportional to the seriousness with which most people take them. if this isn't a game, it's pretty much indefensible; it's not like we're going to answer the questions, etc.
above all, my experience of richard rorty was of a really kind and decent person, which might be a better reason to take his positions seriously than those he actually gave. i have obviously gotten some professional mileage out of being rorty's student, and i'm grateful for that. i'm also uncomfortable having that centralized in my biography, for precisely the sorts of reasons i've been giving and because i'm all oedipal and shit and want to consider myself rorty's equal. (however, though i have often hinted that i came to my positions by systematic rejection of his, that's not true, fundamentally. i came is as an anarchist/libertarian, and also as a realist who believed in a hard real physical world to which truth is a surrender.) also because i don't want to be associated except under inversion with his positions. also because i am opposed to discipleship in philosophy. (or i might go a little further and say discipleship, or even real reverence for particular figures, is the opposite of philosophy, entirely incompatible with it. i would not at all associate philosophy conceptually with reason. but there is no philosophy where there isn't independent thought.) one of rorty's teachers was rudolf carnap, btw, so i imagine maybe he felt some of the same things.
response to cb:
i have been entertained or even delighted by many novels. in my teens i read *lord of the rings* a dozen times or more. in my twenties it was wodehouse: i read all hundred novels, more or less. thirties: well, for one thing noir: hammett and especially chandler. etc., and i've read a lot of the classics, some of which i liked a lot, and many of which i thought were absurdly overrated. now i don't doubt that a decade in middle earth or blandings castle had some effect on my personality. but no more than watching a lot of sports on tv, or driving a honda and many other activities. the novel is an excellent form of entertainment. you just need to stop bloating your little pleasures into a profound, world-transforming and person-transforming Truth. people (mostly lit professors) have tried to understand all human life and personality in terms of the novel: as 'narrative constructions.'
you'd better keep this pretty amorphous. there have been novels that actually had some real effect. supposedly goethe's *sorrows of werther* gave rise to a suicide fad, for example. other than that it's stuff like 'the invention of the human,' or a kind of deep insight into the zeitgeist or something: you'd better keep it at that mega-wooly level where the assertion just kind of sounds profound but has no actual content, because actually novels are just little rectangular objects with ink stains, which basically don't do a damn thing. yo that's ok!
if it's any comfort to you, i regard philosophy the same way, more or less. it's not implausible to argue that locke, or marx, or confucius, had dramatic social effects. but that's three out of thousands. (however, no novel has ever had those sorts of effects.) i fully expect my books to have no effect on anything, and i'm good with that. it's like my hobby or whatever; i find it intrinsically absorbing, and that's why i do it, and that's good enough to keep me going.
you should get worried if i start saying that 'life itself is a philosophical treatise,' or 'we are the polemical essays we compose,' or that the structure of the universe itself is a syllogism. or when the dude at the honda dealership likens world history to a sales pitch. the novel has no more claim to reflect the very structure of consciousness and the nature of reality than does carpentry, or free jazz, or gastronomy, or gardening, or driving, or playing board games, or bird-watching, now if you're thinking that all of these are significant because they fall into a narrative structure, i say, first: that's not true. and second: it would work just as well the other way round: a novel is like a house, or like a meal, or like a commute.
reading to my kids has been one of the great pleasures of my life (right now i'm in princess bride with janie). so i like the sound of this. the head-on-the-chest thing is evocative of many tiredly delighted, loving hours with emma, sam, hayes, vince, and jane. unfortunately i haven't always lived full-time with my kids. still whether it's every night or just weekends, it's often an hour at night and half-hour in the morning. one frequently thinks of one's difficulties and failures as a parent; this i think of as a success.
friday night jane asked me: how do you always know the right time to stop, when i'm just drifting off? well, for one thing, if you pause and she doesn't pipe up, that's it: not exactly telepathy. but also: i've been doing this for over twenty years. i know what i'm doing!
a correspondent named tamer makes me aware that there are translations of art of living and obscenity, anarchy, reality in turkish. well!
i published a corrected version of spyder's rebellion to nook (epub format).
while i'm at it, let me say this about e-readers. i've been using the kindle for the better part of a year. i do use it and even like it. for one thing, my house is filled to the point of collapse with books. but i do have some problems with it. first, i would say the idea of a mechanical - as opposed to a touch-screen - device, is over, or getting there. that makes me wish i'd gone nook or ipad. the process of getting the cursor to the spot you want to highlight, for example, is just obviously ridiculous.
what isn't sufficient in e-readers yet is, first, that you can't leaf through the book (maybe you can on an ipad?). the kindle's 'location' system is incomprehensible, and you often have to page slowly through whole big sections of a book to find the passage you want. you need processor speed and a dial on the edge where you can just roll through the text. and then there is page numbering: it makes the kindle (and i think the nook too) not fully functional for scholarship, as well as making it ridiculously difficult to find a passage you want. there has to be a system of systematic page numbering - one would hope, corresponding to the printed version - in all e-books, so i can for one thing, do references.
in short, judging by the kindle, i don't think the e-book is there yet.
i just uploaded a kids'/ya e-novel about overthrowing a middle school. though the main character is a girl, it's based on my revolution against alice deal junior high school in dc, and some of my daughter emma's subversive adventures at carver high school, towson, md. it could actually be a manual on how to drive your principal literally insane, which my little guerilla band did do circa 1972. it's published on kindle at amazon and in multiple formats at smashwords.
i realize that if you buy it, you'll pay $4.99. however, i'm broke and i get like $3.50 for every copy sold
ok she shot her teenage kids on the way home from soccer practice because they were 'mouthy.' in other news, amy chua is still on her book tour.
We will see that, like a particle, the universe doesn't just have a single history, but every possible history, each with its own probability; and our observations of its current state affect its past and determine the different histories of the universe, just as the observations of the particles in the double-slit experiment affect the particles' past. That analysis will show how the laws of nature in our universe arose from the big bang. (Grand Design, chapter 4)
i'm going to skip the disclaimer deferring to the super-intelligence of richard feynman etc. also i'm not gonna take another shot at the retroactive past right now. but i just want to point out that the idea that 'the' universe originated uniquely in a big bang is incompatible with the rest of the passage. the universe has every possible origin. surely the steady state theorists weren't wrong: if that is one of the possible histories, it is precisely as actual as the universe(s) that originated in the big bang.
i think hawking is going to argue that we don't need god to explain anything. true, true, but if god is possible then he's as actual as you and me (which is not very, i admit, in this cosmology). if it is possible that god created the universe etc...the only rational position is both to believe and not...in anything, really.
"richard feynman was a colorful character," writes hawking. and an incredibly dull old sod who never recovered from being dropped on his head as a baby. and also he didn't exist at all. he was mercurial like that, as well as colorful.
is a universe that obeys newton's laws all the way down a possible universe? then it is an actual universe, and since in that universe the quantum events that give rise to the 'every possible history' approach do not occur, that universe does not have all possible histories. so if that universe is possible, then it is not the case that the universe has every possible history.
what we're supposedly looking for is an 'elegant' theory that will help us explain future observations. (elegance was #1 to future observations' #4 in hawking's standards for the goodness of theories). you might want to ponder just how elegant 'the universe has every possible history' is. i propose that there could be no less elegant theory, no lusher or more teeming ontology. that's fun! that's cool! but by hawking's own standards it is bad. (well, i guess strictly speaking we might get an even more lush ontology from the claim that the universe has all possible and all impossible histories. i'm kind of surprised that that wasn't hawking's approach. perhaps further double-slit experiments will demonstrate that as well; but at this point it's only speculation. still it seems to explain a lot!)
of course elegance is a complex concept, as hawking acknowledges, and for all i know this gives you the fewest or the simplest equations. but in the old ockham's razor sense ('don't multiply entities without necessity') this is, very precisely, the least elegant possible account.
on the other hand, with regard to the standard of delivering predictions likely to be borne out in future observations, the idea that the universe has every possible history works incredibly well. i predict, with regard to every possible event, that the event will actually occur. there i'm done! and science is entirely finished. thank god because that shit was wack.
alright then let me try this: the co-actuality of all possible histories (or indeed of more than one) is itself impossible. that is, considered as a single unique item every possible history is possible. hard to quibble there. but the co-actuality of histories in which richard feynman, that particular person, exists in one and not in the other is not possible. or what can we mean by 'possible'? probably hawking has physical possibility in mind along the lines of the laws of physics; would he recognize that it is impossible for feynman both to exist and not to exist? (to be clear: it is possible that feynman existed. and it is possible that feynman didn't exist. but it is not possible that feynman both existed and didn't exist.) if not, then i think he ought to drop the physical laws too; it would not of course then follow from the fact that these laws hold that they do not also fail to hold.
watcha readin, little crispy? reading (and teaching) paul butler's book let's get free: a hip hop theory of justice. butler is a relatively young black former federal prosecutor who's now a law prof at george washington. it's quite a remarkable book - or at least butler is a remarkable figure - in many ways. one would think of him as a liberal, among other things for his attack on high incarceration rates, his advocacy of drug decriminalization, his attack on racial profiling, etc: these are in fact the central themes of the the book.
if we really thought of the left-right political spectrum as coherent, however, there are massive surprising infusions of conservatism. for example, his "theory of justice" is purely unabashedly retributivist. he thinks that punishing criminals is a matter fundamentally of vengeance; that's justice. well i've often argued for that position, which gets rid of so much easy self-deceived blahblah. he purports to get this - as well as a heartfelt phenomenology and critique of a society that locks up so many of its people - from hip hop music. (he writes: "I fell in love with hip hop music on a crowded dance floor at Yale." well, that's our america, I suppose; yale is of course also where easy-e earned the notches on his ak.)
the position butler is most noted for is "jury nullification"; he thinks that american juries have a right to decide not only on the guilt of defendants, but on the rightness of the law they allegedly violated. his view cutting to the chase is that juries should refuse to convict young black men of non-violent drug offenses, even when they did commit the offense as defined in a criminal code. (jurors for justice)
the idea of jury nullification is straight-up don'ttreadonme teaparty hyperamerican reactionary excellence. in 1852, the great anarchist/legal scholar/abolitionist/argumentative prodigy lysander spooner published a gigantic book tracing the practice from magna charta to the fugitive slave act (when juries refused to convict those who harbored escaped slaves, though that was clearly against the law): an essay on trial by jury. (i'm gonna write butler to make sure he knows this work; well, i assume he does).
let's get free is a really passionate attack on our carceral society and a plea for reform. now it has some limitations. butler argues that lower rates of incarceration would make us safer. he takes himself to have "demonstrated" this, but really the wielding of statistics and so on, while suggestive, is impressionistic or even kind of careless; butler does not really go for the throat with an attempt at systematic knockdown argument. one reason for that is that the book is intended as a kind of light popularization of legal theory. that's what really accounts for book's other great weakness as well: there is very little depth of scholarship of any sort; there isn't even an index. this is particularly glaring on something like jury nullification, a serious defense of which would require much more care and erudition than butler displays.but i have to say that the basic idea of american liberties as a way to address racism and the prison-industrial complex is extremely compelling. butler surprises over and over; it's just a very creative way through the territory: fundamentally original. how many law school deans/federal prosecutors are going to come out in support of the baltimore stop snitchin movement? butler's discussion is remarkably nuanced but also excellent common sense.look one thing you have to admire and never see is someone with no particular affiliation; someone who thinks beyond or before the left/right split.
i also think the light touch and quick polemics are basically why my students are actually enjoying reading the book, and actually do seem to be reading it. if i were teaching trial by jury, i'd have two freaks out of 37 students reading along.quoted by butler: i'd free all my sons. still living for today, in these last days of time.
in the most recent new york review of books, diane johnson (author of le divorce etc, masterpiece of the "i was a crack ho...in provence!" genre) praises margaret atwood's dystopian fiction for its astonishing prescience, adducing the following example:
The action in The Handmaid's Tale takes place in Harvard Yard, where men are executed and and their bodies draped on the walls; the recent arrest of Henry Louis Gates might have given Atwood an I-told-you-so moment about the approach of the punitive forces.
due to some offblog correspondence, i think perhaps i should pause to situate myself with regard to the susan-cheever-on-ayelet-waldman post below.
well. i don't write as a woman, obviously. and i also don't write as someone who is objective about women. i am a parent but not, as you might guess, a mother. i am the ex-husband of someone who writes in this vein with real wit and verve (i.e. marion winik), and i have been the subject of writings like this over the years, including in oprah magazine. i have had a lot of experience with the kind of thing cheever or waldman or knapp or winik or anne lamott write about: i am a recovering addict. i take twelve-step programs very seriuously and have explored them elaborately, and if i run into a using addict today i tell him or her to get his or her ass to a meeting. i have plumbed the depths of self-loathing and been treated with years of therapy and also all the available anti-depressants. and i am, of course, a writer, and occasionally write about my own life and problems
i am not saying that these things shouldn't be written about, or even that they shouldn't be written about in the way these women write about them. what i'm saying is: i think perhaps they need to think harder, try to get beyond the self-esteem drama into other ways of thinking about these matters, be suspicious of formulae and pat answers. some of them have and do to some extent.
but i think there is much else to be said, and much more truth to be revealed. i think the confessions are painful or provocative, interestingly salacious or sensational or not, but still overall pretty superficial.
hey it's great that an actual book in aesthetics, the art instinct, by an old acquaintance, editor, fellow-widener of the concept of art denis dutton is getting so much attention. i admit being skeptical of the basic idea, however: that since art is a universal human activity, it must have an evolutionary function (or several).from the fact that, let's say,the hot flash of menopause is universal, it doesn't follow that it's not just an arbitrary consequence of other adaptations, or even that the things it follows from are adaptive. but i have a feeling dutton knows stuff like that: notably smart dude.
yo if you're around philly, me and marion are reading at 7 this evening at the big blue marble bookstore in mt. airy. it'll be our essays on, um, middle aged sex. i knocked the bottom out of the topic.
watcha readin profcrispy?
two delightful books of rather different sorts. often when i'm down at ma's farm i pull something moreorless randomly off the shelf. this xmas it was main currents in american thought, the huge magisterial intellectual history by vernon parrington, published in 1927. at like 800 pages of grey hardback, it almost mumbles "boring." but it is not. parrington writes with great boldness and verve, and has particular talents for explaining ideas and for sketching personalities; when he dislikes someone, he gives a fair and utterly devastating and often extremely droll account of their lives. of cotton mather, parrington writes: "With a very lust for printer's ink, he padded his bibliography like a college professor seeking promotion; but in spite of all the prayers poured out in behalf of them, they would seem for the most part to have been little more than tupenny tracts, stuffed with a sodden morality, that not even an angel could make literature of." parrington sympathizes with anyone who embodies what he takes to america's liberal tradition, even to the point of sympathizing with the anti-federalists etc.
then: jonathan strange and mr. norrell, by susanna clarke. this is surely one of the most ecstatically blurbed books that ever existed, and they run like this: a bold mixture of jane austen and j.r.r. tolkien! harry potter for grown-ups! what it is, is a fiction that puts magic at the disposal of the english empire during the napoleonic wars. it is truly as hilarious a book as can well be imagined: the prose is a beautiful parody of the british writers of the era, with tremendous style and verve. clarke celebrates and annihilates all human foibles.
"'Yes, indeed! It is beautiful,' agreed the gentleman enthusiastically. 'And very hard to make. The pigment must be mixed with the tears of spinsters of good family, who must live long lives of impeccable virtue and die without ever having had a day of true happiness!'
'Poor ladies!' said Stephen. 'I am glad it is so rare.'
'Oh! it is not the tears that make it rare - I have bottles full of those - it is the skill to mix the color.'"