Quotulatiousness

May 26, 2016

Terry Teachout on silent movies

Filed under: History, Media, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Ten years ago, Terry Teachout finally got around to watching D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, and found (to his relief) that it was just as offensively racist as everyone had always said. He also discovered that silent movies are becoming terra incognita even to those who love old movies:

None of this, however, interested me half so much as the fact that The Birth of a Nation progresses with the slow-motion solemnity of a funeral march. Even the title cards stay on the screen for three times as long as it takes to read them. Five minutes after the film started, I was squirming with impatience, and after another five minutes passed, I decided out of desperation to try an experiment: I cranked the film up to four times its normal playing speed and watched it that way. It was overly brisk in two or three spots, most notably the re-enactment of Lincoln’s assassination (which turned out to be quite effective – it’s the best scene in the whole film). For the most part, though, I found nearly all of The Birth of a Nation to be perfectly intelligible at the faster speed.

Putting aside for a moment the insurmountable problem of its content, it was the agonizingly slow pace of The Birth of a Nation that proved to be the biggest obstacle to my experiencing it as an objet d’art. Even after I sped it up, my mind continued to wander, and one of the things to which it wandered was my similar inability to extract aesthetic pleasure out of medieval art. With a few exceptions, medieval and early Renaissance art and music don’t speak to me. The gap of sensibility is too wide for me to cross. I have a feeling that silent film – not just just The Birth of a Nation, but all of it – is no more accessible to most modern sensibilities. (The only silent movies I can watch with more than merely antiquarian interest are the comedies of Buster Keaton.) Nor do I think the problem is solely, or even primarily, that it’s silent: I have no problem with plotless dance, for instance. It’s that silent film “speaks” to me in an alien tongue, one I can only master in an intellectual way. That’s not good enough for me when it comes to art, whose immediate appeal is not intellectual but visceral (though the intellect naturally enters into it).

As for The Birth of a Nation, I’m glad I saw it once. My card is now officially punched. On the other hand, I can’t imagine voluntarily seeing it again, any more than I’d attend the premiere of an opera by Philip Glass other than at gunpoint. It is the quintessential example of a work of art that has fulfilled its historical purpose and can now be put aside permanently – and I don’t give a damn about history, at least not in my capacity as an aesthete. I care only for the validity of the immediate experience.

[…] Thrill me and all is forgiven. Bore me and you’ve lost me. That’s why I think it’s now safe to file and forget The Birth of a Nation. Yes, it’s still historically significant, and yes, it tells us something important about the way we once were. But it’s boring — and thank God for that.

May 19, 2016

QotD: A contrarian view of “Britain in decline”

Filed under: Britain, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

… it is not a bad time to remind ourselves how lucky we are to live on this damp little island.

I don’t mean this in a jingoistic way, and certainly when you look closely there is little to recommend Henry V’s brutal French raid. What there is to celebrate, of course, is Shakespeare’s poetic rendering of the campaign. It is our literary, scientific, technological, economic, political and philosophical achievements, rather than just our military milestones that we should occasionally pause to remember, amid our usual self-criticism.

All my life I have been told that Britain is in decline. But stand back and take a long, hard look. Even by relative standards, it just is not true. We have recently overtaken France (again) as the fifth largest economy in the world and are closing on Germany. We have the fourth largest defence budget in the world, devoted largely to peace-keeping. We disproportionately contribute to the world’s literature, art, music, technology and science.

We have won some 123 Nobel prizes, more than any other country bar America (and more per capita than America), and we continue to win them, with 18 in this century so far. In the field of genetics, which I know best, we discovered the structure of DNA, invented DNA fingerprinting, pioneered cloning and contributed 40 per cent of the first sequencing of the human genome.

On absolute measures, we are in even better shape. Income per capita has more than doubled since 1965 — in real terms. In those days, three million households lacked or shared an inside lavatory, most houses did not have central heating and twice as many people as today had no access to a car. When they did it was expensive, unreliable and leaked fumes.

In the 1960s even though there were fewer people in Britain, rivers were more polluted, the air was dirtier, and there were fewer trees, otters and buzzards. Budget airlines, mobile phones, search engines and social media were as unimaginable as unicorns. Sure, there was less obesity and fewer traffic jams, but there were more strikes, racism and nylon clothing. People spent twice as much of their income on food. There may be political angst about immigrants, but Britain is far more at ease with its multicultural self today than we might have dared to hope in the 1960s.

Matt Ridley, “Britain’s Best Years”, MattRidley.com, 2015-01-01.

May 16, 2016

QotD: The value of criticism

Filed under: Liberty, Media, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Critical note — Of a piece with the absurd pedagogical demand for so-called constructive criticism is the doctrine that an iconoclast is a hollow and evil fellow unless he can prove his case. Why, indeed, should he prove it? Is he judge, jury, prosecuting officer, hangman? He proves enough, indeed, when he proves by his blasphemy that this or that idol is defectively convincing — that at least one visitor to the shrine is left full of doubts. The fact is enormously significant; it indicates that instinct has somehow risen superior to the shallowness of logic, the refuge of fools. The pedant and the priest have always been the most expert of logicians — and the most diligent disseminators of nonsense and worse. The liberation of the human mind has never been furthered by dunderheads; it has been furthered by gay fellows who heaved dead cats into sanctuaries and then went roistering down the highways of the world, proving to all men that doubt, after all, was safe — that the god in the sanctuary was finite in his power and hence a fraud. One horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms. It is not only more effective; it is also vastly more intelligent.

H.L. Mencken, “Clinical Notes”, The American Mercury, 1924-01.

April 17, 2016

QotD: “Thought collectives” in science

Filed under: Quotations, Science — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

In a 2015 paper titled Does Science Advance One Funeral at a Time?, a team of scholars at the National Bureau of Economic Research sought an empirical basis for a remark made by the physicist Max Planck: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

The researchers identified more than 12,000 “elite” scientists from different fields. The criteria for elite status included funding, number of publications, and whether they were members of the National Academies of Science or the Institute of Medicine. Searching obituaries, the team found 452 who had died before retirement. They then looked to see what happened to the fields from which these celebrated scientists had unexpectedly departed, by analysing publishing patterns.

What they found confirmed the truth of Planck’s maxim. Junior researchers who had worked closely with the elite scientists, authoring papers with them, published less. At the same time, there was a marked increase in papers by newcomers to the field, who were less likely to cite the work of the deceased eminence. The articles by these newcomers were substantive and influential, attracting a high number of citations. They moved the whole field along.

A scientist is part of what the Polish philosopher of science Ludwik Fleck called a “thought collective”: a group of people exchanging ideas in a mutually comprehensible idiom. The group, suggested Fleck, inevitably develops a mind of its own, as the individuals in it converge on a way of communicating, thinking and feeling.

This makes scientific inquiry prone to the eternal rules of human social life: deference to the charismatic, herding towards majority opinion, punishment for deviance, and intense discomfort with admitting to error. Of course, such tendencies are precisely what the scientific method was invented to correct for, and over the long run, it does a good job of it. In the long run, however, we’re all dead, quite possibly sooner than we would be if we hadn’t been following a diet based on poor advice.

Ian Leslie, “The sugar conspiracy”, Guardian, 2016-04-07.

April 7, 2016

Galileo’s Middle Finger is about what happens when science and dogma collide”

Filed under: Books, Politics, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

A positive review of Alice Dreger’s recent book from Jesse Singal at New York Magazine:

I first read Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science when I was home for Thanksgiving, and I often left it lying around the house when I was doing other stuff. At one point, my dad picked it up off a table and started reading the back-jacket copy. “That’s an amazing book so far,” I said. “It’s about the politicization of science.” “Oh,” my dad responded. “You mean like Republicans and climate change?”

That exchange perfectly sums up why anyone who is interested in how tricky a construct “truth” has become in 2015 should read Alice Dreger’s book. No, it isn’t about climate change, but my dad could be excused for thinking any book about the politicization of science must be about conservatives. Many liberals, after all, have convinced themselves that it’s conservatives who attack science in the name of politics, while they would never do such a thing. Galileo’s Middle Finger corrects this misperception in a rather jarring fashion, and that’s why it’s one of the most important social-science books of 2015.

At its core, Galileo’s Middle Finger is about what happens when science and dogma collide — specifically, what happens when science makes a claim that doesn’t fit into an activist community’s accepted worldview. And many of Dreger’s most interesting, explosive examples of this phenomenon involve liberals, not conservatives, fighting tooth and nail against open scientific inquiry.

[…]

There’s a risk of getting too cute here, of drawing false, unwarranted equivalencies. In a sense, my dad was right in what he was getting at — conservatives have done a lot of damage to sound science in the United States. It’s conservative lawmakers and organizations who have refused to acknowledge anthropogenic climate change, who have rallied to keep evolution out of textbooks and comprehensive sex education out of classrooms, who have stymied life-saving research into stem cells and gun control.

But that’s in the world of politics and lawmaking, where conservatives often have a numerical advantage. In the halls of social-science academia, where liberals do, it’s telling that some of the same sorts of feeding frenzies occur. This should stand as a wake-up call, as a rebuke to the smugness that sometimes infects progressive beliefs about who “respects” science more. After all, what both the Bailey and Chagnon cases have in common — alongside some of the others in Galileo’s Middle Finger — is the extent to which groups of progressive self-appointed defenders of social justice banded together to launch full-throated assaults on legitimate science, and the extent to which these attacks were abetted by left-leaning academic institutions and activists too scared to stand up to the attackers, often out of a fear of being lumped in with those being attacked, or of being accused of wobbly allyship.

February 29, 2016

QotD: Kerouac’s On the Road as an unintentionally feminist novel

Filed under: Books, Media, Quotations, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

There’s a story about a TV guide that summarized The Wizard of Oz as “Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first woman she meets, then teams up with three complete strangers to kill again.”

It’s funny because it mistakes a tale of wonder and adventure for a crime spree. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is the opposite; a crime spree that gets mistaken for a tale of wonder and adventure.

On The Road is a terrible book about terrible people. Kerouac and his terrible friends drive across the US about seven zillion times for no particular reason, getting in car accidents and stealing stuff and screwing women whom they promise to marry and then don’t.

But it’s okay, because they are visionaries. Their vision is to use the words “holy”, “ecstatic”, and “angelic” at least three times to describe every object between Toledo and Bakersfield. They don’t pass a barn, they pass a holy vision of a barn, a barn such as there must have been when the world was young, a barn whose angelic red and beatific white send them into mad ecstasies. They don’t almost hit a cow, they almost hit a holy primordial cow, the cow of all the earth, the cow whose dreamlike ecstatic mooing brings them to the brink of a rebirth such as no one has ever known.

[…]

Even more interesting than their ease of transportation to me was their ease at getting jobs. This is so obvious to them it is left unspoken. Whenever their money runs out, be they in Truckee or Texas or Toledo, they just hop over to the nearest farm or factory or whatever, say “Job, please!” and are earning back their depleted savings in no time. This is really the crux of their way of life. They don’t feel bound to any one place, because traveling isn’t really a risk. Be it for a week or six months, there’s always going to be work waiting for them when they need it. It doesn’t matter that Dean has no college degree, or a criminal history a mile long, or is only going to be in town a couple of weeks. This just seems to be a background assumption. It is most obvious when it is violated; the times it takes an entire week to find a job, and they are complaining bitterly. Or the time the only jobs available are backbreaking farm labor, and so Jack moves on (of course abandoning the girl he is with at the time) to greener pastures that he knows are waiting.

Even more interesting than their ease of employment is their ease with women. This is unintentionally a feminist novel, in that once you read it (at least from a modern perspective) you end up realizing the vast cultural shift that had to (has to?) take place in order to protect women from people like the authors. Poor Galatea Dunkel seems to have been more of the rule than the exception – go find a pretty girl, tell her you love her, deflower her, then steal a car and drive off to do it to someone else, leaving her unmarriageable and maybe with a kid to support. Then the next time you’re back in town, look her up, give her a fake apology in order to calm her down enough for her to be willing to have sex with you again, and repeat the entire process.

Scott Alexander, “Book Review: On The Road“, Slate Star Codex, 2014-12-02.

February 27, 2016

QotD: “I am starting to think I was previously a little too charitable toward Marx”

Filed under: Economics, History, Politics, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

I figured that Marx had just fallen into a similar trap. He’d probably made a few vague plans, like “Oh, decisions will be made by a committee of workers,” and “Property will be held in common and consensus democracy will choose who gets what,” and felt like the rest was just details. That’s the sort of error I could at least sympathize with, despite its horrendous consequences.

But in fact Marx was philosophically opposed, as a matter of principle, to any planning about the structure of communist governments or economies. He would come out and say “It is irresponsible to talk about how communist governments and economies will work.” He believed it was a scientific law, analogous to the laws of physics, that once capitalism was removed, a perfect communist government would form of its own accord. There might be some very light planning, a couple of discussions, but these would just be epiphenomena of the governing historical laws working themselves out. Just as, a dam having been removed, a river will eventually reach the sea somehow, so capitalism having been removed society will eventually reach a perfect state of freedom and cooperation.

Singer blames Hegel. Hegel viewed all human history as the World-Spirit trying to recognize and incarnate itself. As it overcomes its various confusions and false dichotomies, it advances into forms that more completely incarnate the World-Spirit and then moves onto the next problem. Finally, it ends with the World-Spirit completely incarnated – possibly in the form of early 19th century Prussia – and everything is great forever.

Marx famously exports Hegel’s mysticism into a materialistic version where the World-Spirit operates upon class relations rather than the interconnectedness of all things, and where you don’t come out and call it the World-Spirit – but he basically keeps the system intact. So once the World-Spirit resolves the dichotomy between Capitalist and Proletariat, then it can more completely incarnate itself and move on to the next problem. Except that this is the final problem (the proof of this is trivial and is left as exercise for the reader) so the World-Spirit becomes fully incarnate and everything is great forever. And you want to plan for how that should happen? Are you saying you know better than the World-Spirit, Comrade?

I am starting to think I was previously a little too charitable toward Marx. My objections were of the sort “You didn’t really consider the idea of welfare capitalism with a social safety net” or “communist society is very difficult to implement in principle,” whereas they should have looked more like “You are basically just telling us to destroy all of the institutions that sustain human civilization and trust that what is baaaasically a giant planet-sized ghost will make sure everything works out.”

Scott Alexander, “Book Review: Singer on Marx”, Slate Star Codex, 2014-09-13.

February 19, 2016

QotD: Art, taste, and judgment

Filed under: Books, Media, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

All of us, if we are not merely children or possessed of childlike tastes, recall works that we had to work to learn to love, such as obtuse poems which has to be explained before they were beautiful, words of archaic or foreign cant, or novels referring to experiences in life we were too young, on first reading, to recognize or know. Even science fiction and fantasy has some introductory learning that needs be done, a certain grasp of the scientific world view or the conventions of fantastic genre that must be gained, before the work is loveable. The only art I know that has no introductory effort at all is comic books, but even they, in recent years, now require introduction, since no one unaware of the decades of continuity can simply pick up a comic book and read it with pleasure: they are written for adults, these days, not kids, and adults expect and are expected to try harder to get into the work before getting something out of it.

The reason why modern art can pass for art is that the Tailors of the Emperor’s New Clothes can claim, and the claim cannot be dismissed unexamined, that modern art merely is has a steeper learning curve than real art. Once you get all the in-jokes and palindromes and Irish and Classical references in James Joyce (so the Tailors say) you can read ULYSSES with the same pleasure that a student, once he learns Latin, reads Virgil. And as long as you are in sympathy with the effort at destruction and deconstruction, this modern art has the same fascination as watching a wrecking crew tear down a fair and delicate antique fane with fretted colonnades and an architrave of flowing figures recalling forgotten wars between giants and gods. What child will not cheer when he sees a wrecking ball crash through the marble and stained glass of old and unwanted beauty? How he will clap when the dynamite goes off, and squeal, and hold his ears! I am not being sarcastic: there is something impressive in such acts.

Let us add a second observation: great novels and great paintings, symphonies, even great comic books, are ones that reward a second rereading or heeding or viewing. A book is something you read once and enjoy and throw away. A good book is one you read twice, and get something out of it a second time. A great book is one that has the power to make you fall in love, and each time you reread it, it is as new and fresh as Springtime, and you see some new nuance in it, the same way you see more beauty each time you see your wife of many years, and will forever, no matter how many years you see her face. (Those of you who are not in love, or not happily married, or who have never read a truly great book, will not know whereof I speak. Alas, I cannot describe the colors of a sunrise to a man born blind.)

Let us assume that there is no beauty in art, no objective rules. If that were so, how do we explain the two observations noted above, first, that some art must be learned before it is loved, and second, that some art rewards additional scrutiny indefinitely, a fountainhead that never runs dry. The explanation that the learning is not learning but merely acclamation, an Eskimo learning to tolerate the tropics, a Bushman growing to enjoy the snow, would make sense if and only if any art or rubbish would reward equal study with equal pleasure.

If the pleasure I get out of a work of art I had to grow and learn to like was merely due to me and my tastes, and the learning was not learning at all, but merely an adjustment of taste from one arbitrary genre convention to another, then the outcome or result could not differ from artwork to artwork, as long as I were the same.

If I can see more rich detail each time I reread Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and if indeed there are beauties that pierce like swords, and if this were due to me and only to me, and not due to something in the work, I should be able to study a pile of rocks besmirched with stains of oil and offal in a rubble heap, and with the same passage of time and effort, force myself to see equal beauty within.

But I cannot, nor can any man. Therefore the sublime is not just in me the observer; logically, it must be in the thing observed. There must be something really there.

If this argument satisfies, it tells us, with the clarity of a Deist argument, that there is an objective beauty in the world, but not what it is.

As in theological argument, in aesthetics we can only know more of the beauty of the universe if it comes to us in the artistic equivalent of revelation. We have to look at beauty in nature and see what is there, and what its rules are, before we look at beauty in human handiwork.

John C. Wright, “Supermanity and Dehumanity (Complete)”, John C. Wright’s Journal, 2014-12-13.

December 23, 2015

Really That Good: A CHRISTMAS STORY

Filed under: Media, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Published on 22 Dec 2015

Welcome to a NEW kind of film-criticism series, built around the radical premise that just because “everyone knows” a movie is a classic doesn’t mean it stops being worth a deeper look.

At first, A CHRISTMAS STORY was a small 1983 movie that not a lot of people saw. But within a few years, regular Seasonal TV replays had turned it into a counter-culture staple – an All-American Christmas Movie that was *just* sly and jaded enough to be the “cool” alternative to more saccharine Holiday fare. Today, it’s celebrated as an unironic generational classic on par with CHARLIE BROWN, THE GRINCH or IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE.

But does it deserve to be? The word “overrated” may as well have been invented to describe seasonal family-favorites we feel duty-bound to revisit on a yearly basis. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the story of Ralphie and his Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle BB gun with a compass in the stock and a thing which tells time isn’t a good movie… but does it belong among the *great* movies?

This Christmas, thousands of people will watch Ralphie, Randy, Mom and The Old Man’s adventures – many as part of the now-ubiquitous 24-hour marathon. But before you do, maybe pull up a chair and listen as we explore whether or not A CHRISTMAS STORY is… REALLY THAT GOOD.

H/T to Victor for the link.

QotD: The gamekeeper

Filed under: Books, Humour, Media, Quotations — Tags: — Nicholas @ 01:00

Although written many years ago, Lady Chatterley’s Lover has just been reissued by the Grove Press, and this pictorial account of the day-to-day life of an English gamekeeper is full of considerable interest to outdoor minded readers, as it contains many passages on pheasant-raising, the apprehending of poachers, ways to control vermin, and other chores and duties of the professional gamekeeper.

Unfortunately, one is obliged to wade through many pages of extraneous material in order to discover and savour those sidelights on the management of a midland shooting estate, and in this reviewer’s opinion the book cannot take the place of J. R. Miller’s Practical Gamekeeping.

Ed Zern, Field and Stream, 1959-11. (via BookTryst)

December 19, 2015

Comparing Starship Troopers to Starship Troopers

Filed under: Books, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Jason Fuesting compares Robert Heinlein’s novel with Paul Verhoeven’s movie “adaptation” (scare quotes here because Verhoeven never read more than the first two chapters of the book). I’ve never seen the movie, but the book is one of my favourites.

Taken in a vacuum, the film itself is passable for its time. Despite being released in November, the film clearly fits the summer action film niche and summer action films are not frequently known for in-depth intellectual dialog or for exceptional acting. Verhoeven’s work does not disappoint that expectation in the least. What effort is evident in the film remains focused primarily on either the fight scenes, particularly in special effects and explosions, or in finding ways to justify having the actresses expose some amount of skin in some form or fashion as frequently as possible. As such, Verhoeven’s film comes off not too dissimilarly from what one might expect of a Michael Bay film, except less subtle in every way.

Cinematography, editing, and score were not exceptional, but quite passable. The film remained fast paced and for multiple scenes camera placement complimented the special effects and other elements quite well. The effects themselves were as I remembered, great for the time period. As far as the individual components of the film in terms of film making are concerned, outside of the acting, the film is quite well done. As for the acting, what I remembered as campy and otherwise forgettable as a teen turned out to be far worse than I remembered.

When one steps back out of the vacuum, the film ultimately falls apart entirely on writing. Many would likely ponder how a summer action movie that has managed to succeed on the other points could ultimately be deemed a failure based solely off a feature movies of its kind almost universally ignore. For Heinlein fans, the film is unequivocally a thumb in the eye. From that perspective, the director took the author’s creation, fed just enough of it through a sausage grinder to get the flavor out, mixed in his own recipe of inanity, and laid out the resulting abomination in precisely the exact opposite direction. For those not particularly attached to Heinlein’s novel but still fans of decent writing, a multitude of plot holes and grave inconsistency errors abound, all of which were introduced by the writers meddling in Heinlein’s construct like children run amok.

Amok is sadly an understatement. The film and the book are two wholly different entities. A Joking comment along the lines of the script used by Verhoeven being the result of the soulless Hollywood machine itself parodied in Robert Altman’s 1992 film The Player might be closer to the truth. Simply put, Verhoeven’s script shares names with the book.

[…]

Ultimately, the book’s message is one that stresses responsibility, personal, to one’s family, and to one’s nation. Heinlein repeatedly highlights how military service is not easy, that life is a lot harder than we think it is when we’re young, how war is not the cool thing most children believe. Verhoeven steadfastly ignores every bit of that and takes every point Heinlein made and twisting it to its opposite: war is great, service is so easy any idiot can do it, the military is filled with unthinking robotic idiots and evil right-wing fascists, and the only people who are held responsible are the ones who get caught without an excuse. Instead of a story that is more or less a post-hoc biography of a soldier, complete with his regrets, Verhoeven’s adaptation is little more than modern actors in remade Nazi uniforms acting out nonsense between scenes further adapted from Nazi propaganda films. Verhoeven is so over-the-top in his use of Nazi imagery and defacing the concept of patriotism that his attempted smear against the right-wing gets lost in the noise.

The film is offensive on multiple levels. First, as a veteran, the book is easily realistic science-fiction that carries multiple very pertinent messages and warnings, especially in today’s society. Many of these were messages I needed to hear when I was younger, but I had neither the maturity nor the experience to truly understand at the time. Second, as an author, I am utterly horrified at the wholesale gutting the film makers and their writers gleefully engaged in and the complete mockery of their creation. The idea that one of my prospective works could receive similar treatment sickens me. Third, as a Conservative leaning libertarian, Verhoeven’s film lampoons ideas central to the survival of any state, left leaning or right, and does so in such a poor fashion that it fails at being even amateur-level propaganda. Admittedly, hyperbole is a valid tool; however, when using hyperbole one must ensure both that one’s point is valid and that the use of hyperbole does not destroy your message. Verhoeven fails on both accounts.

Update, 20 December: Just realized I hadn’t included the original link to this review. My belated apologies to Jason Fuesting and Cedar Sanderson for the oversight.

December 18, 2015

Camille Paglia on “Feminist trouble”

Filed under: Books, Liberty, Media, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

In Spiked, Camille Paglia talks to Ella Whelan:

It’s doubtful whether Camille Paglia – cultural critic, academic and the author of several acclaimed books including, most recently, Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars – has ever pulled a punch. Since she burst on to the cultural scene in the 1990s, following the publication of Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson – as she put it, the ‘most X-rated academic book ever written’ – Paglia has been a trenchant, principled voice in the Culture Wars, attacking, with one hand, the anti-sex illiberalism of her feminist peers, while, with the other, laying waste to the trendy, pomo relativism infecting the academy.

Above all, Paglia, who some have called the anti-feminist feminist, has remained a staunch defender of individual freedom. She has argued against laws prohibiting pornography, drugs and abortion. And, when political correctness was cutting a swathe through a host of institutions during the 1990s, she stood firmly on the side of free speech. So, what does she make of the political and cultural state of feminism today? What does she think of the revival of anti-sex sentiment among young feminists, their obsession with policing language, and their wholehearted embrace of victimhood? As spiked’s Ella Whelan discovered, Paglia’s convictions burn as brightly as ever…

December 12, 2015

The cargo cult of modern art

Filed under: History, Humour, Pacific, Politics — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Richard Bledsoe on the similarities between the cargo cults of Pacific Islanders during and after the Second World War and the modern art scene:

Much of establishment contemporary art has become an inverted cargo cult.

The phenomenon of the cargo cult originally was observed when the primitive tribal societies of the South Pacific encountered the advanced cultures of the West. It reached a pitch of religious fervor after World War II.

The industrial manufactured items of the newcomers amazed the remote villagers of islands like New Guinea and Tanna. The strangers from over the sea brought with them riches in the form of machines and goods — airplanes, tools, medicines, canned food, radios and the like — made from materials incomprehensible to what were practically Stone Age people. The tribes decided surely such wonderful items must be made by the gods.

As battles raged in the Pacific, the indigenous populations observed the soldiers at work: marching around in uniforms, clearing runways, talking on radios. In response the planes arrived, seemingly from heaven, bringing to the islands the massive quantities of materials needed for the war effort. To the natives who got to share some of the magical items, this treasure — the technological output of developed nations — came to be referred to collectively by the pidgin word cargo.

But when the war ended, the soldiers left. The flow of magic cargo ceased. The tribesmen had lost access to the gifts from the gods.

The abandoned natives developed a plan to get back into divine favor. Having no frame of reference for the ways of the modern world, they interpreted the activities of construction and communications the visitors performed as forms of ritual. The tribesmen would reenact the rites they had seen the foreigners perform, recreate their ceremonial objects. This would please the gods, who would start delivering the cargo again — but this time, to the natives.

The islanders designed outfits based on military uniforms. They drilled in cadence, carrying rifles of bamboo. They built wooden aerials, constructed mock radios, clearing landing strips in the jungle, placed decoy planes of straw on them. And waited.

[…]

To our rational minds this is preposterous. We understand the uselessness of evoking the facade of a machine without the necessary functionalities being incorporated into it. What matters is the inner workings, not the appearance.

And yet, a form of this magical thinking has infected contemporary art. The subservience of art to political issues derails the purpose of the artist. The prevalent dogma interferes with the discovery of a personal artistic vision. So contemporary artists attempt to imitate their way into a valid artistic experience.

In a stunning reversal, in our advanced technological society, artists uncomprehendingly recreate inferior approximations, parodying the objects and gestures of the past and the primitive, trying in vain to summon the sense of awe and wholeness present in the art of bygone ages. By mimicking and mocking the outer forms of the originators, the artists hope the gods will arrive bearing their eternal gifts — that these snotty knock offs will also rise to the level of art.

December 11, 2015

QotD: Hegel is not so much studied these days as viewed from afar, dimly

Filed under: History, Media, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

A book review by Roger Kimball helps round out the picture. Along with presenting the legend that Hegel said that “only one person only understood me, and even he misunderstood me”, Kimball writes:

    Like many people who have soldiered through a fair number of Hegel’s books, I was both awed and depressed by their glittering opacity. With the possible exception of Heidegger, Hegel is far and away the most difficult “great philosopher” I have ever studied. There was much that I did not understand. I secretly suspected that no one — not even my teachers — really understood him, and it was nice to have that prejudice supported from the master’s own lips.

    Is it worth the effort? I mean, you spend a hundred hours poring over The Phenomenology of Spirit — widely considered to be Hegel’s masterpiece — and what do you have to show for it? The book is supposed to take you from the naïve, “immediate” position of “sense certainty” to Absolute Knowledge, “or Spirit that knows itself as Spirit.” That sounds pretty good, especially when you are, say, eighteen and are busy soaking up ideas guaranteed to mystify and alarm your parents. But what do you suppose it means?

Despite trying really hard to say some nice things about Hegel, just about the best that Kimball can do is:

    So why read Hegel? Just as doctors learn a lot about health by studying diseases, so we can learn a lot about philosophical health by studying Hegel.

The phrase “damning with faint praise” seems insufficient here.

Worse, Hegel has been criticized as a racist, a totalitarian, a proto-Nazi, and the kind of rationalist everyone hates – complete with stories about how he proved from first principles that there were only seven planets (not quite true, although he does seem to have made some similar inexcusable scientific errors. He was mocked (with some justice) for believing that his own work represented the final achievement of God’s plan for the Universe, and that the objective progress of history had culminated in the early 19th century Prussian state.

As a result, when I spent four years getting a bachelors in Philosophy, not only did I not receive a word of instruction in Hegel, but I was actively pushed away from him with frequent derogatory references.

I should qualify all this. Part of it is the analytic-continental divide. Hegel ended up well on the continental side of that, so even though analytics have a dim opinion of him, I’m pretty sure he remains studied and well-respected within continental circles. Indeed, the split may have necessitated analytics dismiss him in order to justify ignoring him, given that not ignoring him would mean engaging him would mean reading him would mean not having the time or energy to do anything else.

But since we’ve already brought in Google as a philosophical authority, we might as well note that it autocompletes “hegel is” into “hegel is impossible to understand”. This seems to be pretty close to a consensus position right now.

Scott Alexander, “What The Hell, Hegel?”, Slate Star Codex, 2014-09-12.

November 25, 2015

National Review‘s Katherine Timpf will not apologize

Filed under: Media, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

At least, she’s not planning on apologizing for making a few (not-even-PG-rated) jokes about Star Wars. Her critics, in addition to pouring scorn and hatred on her for daring to joke about such a holy topic, also threaten her life:

Now, I received a few death threats right after I posted the aforementioned tweet — which, by the way, was why I was saying Star Wars fans were “crazy” in the first place. Overall, though, it wasn’t a big deal, and I kind of forgot about it.

Then, this week, one Star Wars super-super-super fan who calls himself “AlphaOmegaSin” made a ten-minute (!) video brutally ripping me apart.

The YouTube comments on his manifesto were even better. You know, stuff like:

    justin 12 hours ago
    Maybe a SW nerd needs to sneak into her dark room, dressed like her bf, rape her, but she doesn’t know it’s rape because she thinks it’s her BF.

    needmypunk 16 hours ago
    I hope she gets acid thrown in her pretty little face.

    sdgaara2 1 day ago
    Wouldn’t it be great if she was beaten to death with “space nerd sticks”

    Guardian978 22 hours ago
    I want to cut that blonde c***’s face off and stick it to a thermal detonator. What a network full of c***s.

    dethklok21 1 day ago
    Wow what a f***ing thunder c***. I hope this b**** gets hit by a f***ing car.

    Mikki Yeong 1 day ago
    those death treaths are approved by me look at that b**** it’s a typical i wear big glasses to look smart but in fact i’m stupid as f*** btwthose glasses used to be only weared by nerds stupid h**

    TheValefor1984 1 day ago
    We should get her address then bury her a** in Star Wars memorabilia lol

    TheGreenStreak452 1 day ago
    I just want to burn Fox News to the ground and all their stupid employees.

[Asterisks not in the original.]

To be fair, AlphaOmegaSin did say that he denounced threats on my life because “Just because you’re a f***ing idiot doesn’t mean that you should have to die.”

A problem with being a free speech absolutist is that you have to accept that some members of the community are going to use it to be as grotesquely offensive as they possibly can. Way to live down to expectations, Star Wars fans.

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