Monthly Archives: December 2011

Private knowledge in relationships


If you aren’t watching closely, you might not know what to believe about Lara Brennan. If you question everything, you might not believe the button in the last scene in Pittsburgh is the button she described. How you decide what to believe might say a lot about you. But I will simply say that I believe her husband knows.

I don’t think it’s healthy to abandon the desire to be believed. But for Lara Brennan, being believed has to come from faith, and so far as we know, only one person in her life has faith in her as a human being, her husband. Locked up with women who are either guilty or without that solace for what she believes will be the rest of her life, she tries to undermine his faith to adapt to the helplessness of her situation and set him free of the isolation his belief imposes on him.

Would these conditions matter if belief were truly subjective? Would they have the same motivation if their lives were governed by illusions, empty signs, and contingent cultural conventions? Maybe it’s just them, but their struggle is out of sync with the widely hailed collapse of human existence into solipsistic mind games. Are the Brennans mythical archetypes themselves, champions of a faith in the triumph of the real that survives as a superstition in a world dominated by the surreal? They don’t resemble the real life prison breaks for love described in one of the special features on the DVD.

“The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane.” – Marcus Aurelius

Psychology, philosophy of mind and philosophy of language are deeply rooted in political life. I’m reading a history of the concept of intellectual disability right now that is in many passages fairly arcane, but seems driven by one scholar’s impression that legal competence evaluations are by and large a scandal motivated by sophistry and the posturing of average intellects as a rational elite. I question the notion that postmodernists have given us good reason to set aside any hope of firmly grasping empirical truths in private or public life. I suspect they are positing unanchored signs in language for political purposes, to facilitate flexible interpretations of written laws. But more on that later.

For now I just want to remark on how universal the experience of private observation is, and what that means for us as human beings when our private observations become contentious. Being disbelieved is extraordinarily isolating. It cuts deeper than being misunderstood, to face those who discredit what you have to say for yourself. I think this is why patients are not permitted to obtain copies of mental health professionals’ notes with their medical records. If the person you trust with your most private utterances responds by noting doubt, this is not to be disclosed. Whether they are mistaken or not, the patient’s sense of having been heard is at stake, and at times the best the treatment provider can offer for this need is a placebo. In other cultures I suppose this sort of mediation between patients and ghosts is handled by witchdoctors with ritual and herbal tea.

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Filed under Postmodernism, The Next Three Days

Aristotle, meet Baudrillard

Virtual reality is on our horizon, and already video games are competing with face to face interaction as the dominant social venue for youth culture. Why are pictures of people more compelling than people in this market? The idea that our world is increasingly dominated by empty signs and simulations has been explored extensively in postmodern philosophy, particularly in the work of Baudrillard. Baudrillard is notoriously difficult to read, but someone at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy decided we ought to know something about the gist of his later work, and boiled one book down to this passage: “the society of production was passing over to simulation and seduction; the panoptic and repressive power theorized by Foucault was turning into a cynical and seductive power of the media and information society; … and revolution and emancipation had turned into their opposites, trapping individuals in an order of simulation and virtuality. .. within the transformations of organized and hi-tech capitalism, modes of Enlightenment become domination, culture becomes culture industry, democracy becomes a form of mass manipulation, and science and technology form a crucial part of an apparatus of social domination.”

Late capitalism is consumerism, the economics of compulsive spending and frivolous production for impulse buying and conspicuous spending. Consumerism posits money buys happiness, and if this is the thinking, spending displays are as significant as conspicuous consumption, because the idea is that money spent produces happiness, even though money is intended to have only token exchange value and does not magically add up to market conditions for acquiring happiness. The sign becomes the object, in the sense that the paper itself is believed to have the power to bestow happiness on its possessor, and acquiring money is as exciting as any Pavlovian precondition for a reward. This inspires industriousness in the pursuit of more money that far exceeds a successful individual’s appetite for discernibly more valuable goods. Hence the art in the vault, represented by a knockoff on the wall that can be replaced if stolen.

Is this really strange? You have to look back to find solid empiricism taken for granted. For empiricism free of caveat or equivocation, you need Aristotle:

“The most distinctive mark of substance appears to be that, while remaining numerically one and the same, it is capable of admitting contrary qualities.” From a postmodernist, this would be a preamble to showing that a word’s empirical referent can be two things at once. For Aristotle, it can only be one thing at a time. “The same statement, it is agreed, can be both true and false. For the statement ‘he is sitting’ is true, yet, when the person in question has risen, the same statement will be false.” For Aristotle, only the writing of the law is proactive, for this is how power is dispensed among the governed, and the truth about power changes with the letter of the law. Its interpretation he would expect to have empirical clarity that in our society is not the rule at all.

“Those things are called relative, which, being either said to be of something else or related to something else, are explained by reference to that other thing.” Aristotle gives examples of comparative words that denote relationships among the things described such as ‘superior’ or ‘double.’ But then he stakes his position deep in empiricism by giving examples of incomplete generalizations, such as ‘ruddered’ for a boat (a boat is not necessarily ruddered) or ‘winged’ for a bird (a winged animal is not necessarily a bird). These descriptions are not correct relationships for Aristotle. A word’s usage is only correct in relation to its empirical referent if it is exact. “All relatives, then, if properly defined, have a correlative. I add this condition because, if that to which they are related is stated as haphazard and not accurately, the two are not found to be interdependent.”

There you are Baudrillard. A world in which a sign that has taken on a life of its own is an aberration, and its endorsement is considered naïve. The reasoning is still available to us, if we allow that in this language there is no word for A, but in another language there are many particulars for A; should speakers of the two languages ever enter into conversation on A, the one would readily convince the other that a referent for A existed to be described, with the limitation that where conventional descriptions of A have novelty value their validity will be a subject for skepticism pending further enquiry.

Has experience of the real per se changed? Among video gamers, I assume investment in virtual reality on an emotional level erodes the importance of differences between pictures of people and people. But the availability of rewards in virtual reality exceeds their availability in the rest of the world, and reward seeking behavior is harnessed with empirical neuroscience in the marketing of products with an addictive potential.

I credit the simpler philosophy with the more enduring truth. Baudrillard understands contemporary culture, but Aristotle understood underlying reality, even if he never made the connection between tadpoles and frogs. The referent Aristotle had in mind is still there. Our level of self-assurance when we go about describing it is all that changed. And of the modest lady, it is often said she doth protest too much.

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Filed under Economics, False controversies, Postmodernism, Virtuosity

“The histrionic truth is in the natural lie.”

I finally finished reading a long poem by Robert Browning that has so many twists and turns I won’t try to give the story away, but I will share some excerpts about acting. The speaker is contemplating love, for more than one woman, while enjoying a fair with music and dancing and “stage-play, the honest cheating.” I think his analogy between acting and cheating on your wife is a little unfair to actors, but he does hint at the difference between acting and lying and the search for truth in a performance.

“Actors! We also act, but only they inscribe
Their style and title so, and preface, only they,
Performance with ‘A lie is all we do or say.’

Mistake his false for true, one minute, – there’s an end
Of the admiration! Truth, we grieve at or rejoice:
‘Tis only falsehood, plain in gesture, look and voice,
That brings the praise desired, since profit comes thereby.
The histrionic truth is in the natural lie.

Each has a false outside, whereby a truth is forced
To issue from within: truth, falsehood, are divorced
By the excepted eye, at the rare season, for
The happy moment. Life means – learning to abhor
The false, and love the true, truth treasured snatch by snatch,
Waifs counted at their worth. And when with strays they match
I’ the parti-coloured world, – when, under foul, shines fair,
And truth, displayed i’ the point, flashed from everywhere
I’ the circle, manifest to soul, though hid from sense,
And no obstruction more affects this confidence, –
When faith is ripe for sight, – why, reasonably, then
Comes the great clearing-up. Wait threescore years and ten!

Therefore I prize stage-play, the honest cheating; thence
The impulse pricked, when fife and drum bade Fair commence,
To bid you trip and skip, link arm in arm with me,
Like husband and like wife, and so together see
The tumbling-troop arrayed, the strollers on their stage
Drawn up and under arms, and ready to engage.”

– Robert Browning, Fifine at the Fair

It’s a little galling to find these lofty words in the mouth of an unreliable narrator, for me at least. I tend toward concrete thinking, and here the irony runs deeper than the sentiment I think. But this is the writer’s curse, to find his gift for word play more prized than his own mind, to be drawn into the grubby clerical work of contract negotiation in all paying gigs, finessing the social contracts in the name of wit and taste like a lawyer in drag. Art is political, and the great danger in trusting art’s politics stems from the voracity of authors for the good things in life, and their relentless self-righteousness in the pursuit of self-serving ends. Is a nod to the irony of a situation conferring moral authority on artists any apology at all? In this case the apologia is by turns preening, disingenuous and glib. But I like this passage well enough. When his narrator isn’t congratulating himself on being himself, he can be pretty compelling. And here he allows the possibility that the actor is more honest than his audience. This, I think, would be the right aspiration for actors – to excel in discovering the truth. The twist is that their parts are written, and finding the truth in a lie is the trick to selling it.

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Filed under Acting, Poetry

Playlist: American Gangster

I only listen to a new album a few times before I integrate into a number of playlists that run 2-5 hours long. Right now I have a little over a hundred playlists; I usually listen to the ones I created most recently though. Usually they’re quite a mix, but when I bought the Grammy winning soundtrack to American Gangster, I noticed it goes quite well with two TOFOG albums, Gaslight and Bastard Life or Clarity, and they both feature prominently in one of my new playlists. I threw in some tracks from the soundtrack to Miami Vice, which I like better than the movie, and some music from the Doors, including a George Winston album called Night Divides the Day. There’s some Fiona Apple too, mostly from When The Pawn Hits… The other album in there is pretty obscure, from a Philippine artist named Kitchie Nadal. Her lyrics have a level of darkness to them that suit the human backdrop to the movie, the Harlem drug scene. I discovered her on YouTube, in a fan video set to a beautiful love song that won her awards. The reason I mention this is that these albums go so well together, the playlist sounds good on shuffle. I usually prefer to arrange my music.

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Filed under American Gangster, Music

Testify

Right now, my favorite Crowe/Doyle song is Testify. That’s how I want to rhyme, the story unfolds naturally but it’s wonderfully catchy. I’ve been experimenting with narrative poetry for a few years now, and it’s opened my eyes to the importance of creating complex characters with charismatic voices and compelling stories. You want a fun story with a great climax, that doesn’t seem cheap or predictable. So many adventure stories are already taken. So instead of trying to come up with original stories, I tried telling the stories of my favorite movies, to study the craft of plot from example.

Testify should’ve been on the 3:10 to Yuma soundtrack, it’s not as black hearted as Ben Wade but it could almost be his theme song. This little piece of fan poetry about 3:10 to Yuma doesn’t have the lyrical qualities of ballad meter, but I’m proud of the way it illustrates Elaine Scarry’s scholarship on the experience of chronic pain, so I thought I’d share it. One take on originality is that it comes from close observation, rather than unique spin. That’s a skill I’m trying to develop by studying themes that stand out in my favorite movies.

The shin I’ve fitted to my knee
still digs against and into me
when it comes off, a phantom pain
I cannot shake but have to feign
an ignorance of perfectly,
or I admit my enemy.
The heat of it resides inside
my body like a furnace plied
by my own heart, but it is not
a part of me, no, I am shot
each time I feel it, so the trick
is not to murmur at the kick.
But the humiliating limp
betrays me. Hobbled like a wimp
I find slight empathy in stares,
its measure is restrained and wears
a mask of platitudes that shame
and dog me for having inflamed
a worthless sentiment. It breaks
my voice at times, and hidden aches
overwhelm me in privacy,
I have only complaints. I see
the world as wounding, for it
jostles my wound. The blinding split
between my conscious mind and flesh
that has done all its healing, fresh
in its complaints each day, denies
me clear reflection, vivid sight,
or perfect hearing. By what right
is this invisible? My wife
tires of belief in the knife
that still stands in the open wound.
She sees nothing there, as attuned
as she is to my feelings, doubt
is her experience of pain. Drought
she can see, poverty she feels.
Who can believe pain never heals?

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Filed under 3:10 to Yuma, Music, Poetry

Maxims of Marcus Aurelius

I’m not an aspiring Stoic, but I like some of the aphorisms from the Meditations Marcus Aurelius put down (they were not for publication, but are now in many editions and on Brainy Quote). I associate Stoics with extremism, but I can take a little Stoicism from a pampered Emperor who doesn’t endorse acceptance of misery from experience. They are simply brave words, to be used under moderate hardship and not abused when the status quo is unacceptable.

“Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart.”

“Anything in any way beautiful derives its beauty from itself and asks nothing beyond itself. Praise is no part of it, for nothing is made worse or better by praise.”

“Because your own strength is unequal to the task, do not assume that it is beyond the powers of man; but if anything is within the powers and province of man, believe that it is within your own compass also.”

“Be content to seem what you really are.”

“Here is the rule to remember in the future, when anything tempts you to be bitter: not, ‘This is a misfortune’ but ‘To bear this worthily is good fortune.’”

“We ought to do good to others as simply as a horse runs, or a bee makes honey, or a vine bears grapes season after season without thinking of the grapes it has borne.”

“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”

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Filed under Classic Crowe, Gladiator

“Death smiles at us all…”

There is more to Karen Blixen than the gorgeous Meryl Streep movie Out of Africa. Start with Daguerreotypes, a book she published under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen. The first essay is my favorite, “On Mottoes of My Life.” If you liked the mottoes in Gladiator, you might like these, too.

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Filed under Gladiator

Food for thought

  The motif of a line graph sprouting twigs and leaves on the DVD intro to A Good Year appeals to a remarkable analogy a favorite author of mine made between ecology and economics. Urban planning visionary Jane Jacobs distilled some of her thinking on economic systems into a Socratic dialogue she calls The Nature of Economies, in which the protagonist takes behaviorist economic theory to the next level and proposes sustainability models instead of individualist ones, arguing that biomimicry teaches balance, interdependence and cooperation as well as competition and hierarchy. I think if you liked the ideas in the movie, you’d like this book, too. Jacobs would get the connections between success and comedy, growth and harmony, patience and timeliness. She would probably be able to explain them. She can certainly elaborate on how much more fertile failure is than success.

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Filed under A Good Year

Two of us

If you’re reading this blog from its beginning, you must think I’d do anything for my dog. But I’ve found something I like here, too. There’s a rugged sweetness to his romantic leads, and his sense of humor really appeals to me. I even like his music, which I didn’t expect. Russell Crowe is a gifted songwriter and performer, with lyrics that fill an unoccupied niche in my music library for adult themes and gentle handling of social tensions, showing that low-key emotional reasoning can explore a subject with more sensitivity than unsentimental anger or septic irony. So far I have Gaslight, Bastard Life or Clarity, and The Crowe/Doyle Songbook Vol. III. Some of the songs are just good, clean fun. One of my favorites is Circus. Testify is a rollicking good story with foot-tapping rhythm and spot-on rhyme. The music video of Testify on the DVD of A Good Year got Bagehot on her feet, too. And I don’t get angry when he puns. That’s smooth.

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Filed under Puppy love

“Tilth and vineyard, hive and horse and herd”

Today I took an interest in Virgil.This, I think, makes me a more credible Russell Crowe fan, because the line “Strength and honor” was his idea, but he wanted to deliver it in Latin.

I had credited the Greeks with the more authentic use of quantitative meter, epic meter, but now I question my sources. I read somewhere that the Greek epics had their origins in an oral tradition that involved not memorization of every line but facility with the epic meter and familiarity with the plot, a sort of extemporaneous versifying of legends passed down by goat herds. A phenomenon of that sort had been documented in the Balkans with early voice recording technology before the traditional bar room recitations disappeared altogether. But this semester I’ve been reading Attridge on quantitative meter in the English language, and Hollander on classical musicology in poetry, and I’m beginning to think this lost source was mistaken. The Greek vernacular may have had as little use for quantitative meter as the Latin, and the Homeric meter may have been as much Homer’s contribution as heroic couplets are Dryden’s.

Attridge sees the experiments with quantitative meter in the English Renaissance as orthographic conventions, arguing that no one could hear quantitative meters in the schoolboys’ Latin that inspired the use of quantitative verse, because the lost language was profoundly mispronounced. I don’t know if the pronunciation of Latin had improved by the time quantitative meters were revived by Victorian poets, but again the enterprise was only experimental. Since then Chomsky has improved our understanding of linguistics and I’d like to look at his analysis of duration in English and Latin pronunciation next. What I’m looking for now are correspondences between meaning or part of speech and duration. Some of my favorite lines of dactyllic hexameter in English are full of spondees, and I think something in the structure of the language explains their richness and muscularity.

With that hunch already in mind, I thought the meter might come through in unrhymed verse translations. I liked the first few lines of a Theodore C. Williams translation of The Aeneid in blank verse and started searching for a preface to the translation. Instead I found a charming review on Google books:

“I’m a huge fan of propaganda, but I think I may not be a fan of fan fic. I was going into this with the hope that it would be fun, extreme, Latin propaganda, but The Aeneid is really more Trojan War fan fic, IMO. It’s the Phantom Menace to The Iliad’s Empire Strikes Back. It is seriously lame. I think Akira Kurosawa could have made a pretty decent movie of it because he likes to have people frenzy. ..And there are some seriously weird details to this story. For example, Venus is this guy’s mom, but she doesn’t raise him to know not to pull a George Costanza in running away from the Greeks? Dude. It just takes a second to wait for your wife, you loser. I mean, I’m no great fan of Venus to begin with, but that’s just weird. It seems like she would have taken a minute to say, “Don’t trample people running away from your enemies.” Maybe it never occurred to her he’d be so lame.

And then the business with Dido was just annoying. She’s the queen of all the land, has been through hell, wherein her eeeevil brother killed her seemingly pretty awesome husband, and then when Aeneas says to Dido, “btw, it was great sleeping with you, but I have a lot of heads to chop off for no particular reason, so I should prolly get going,” she goes all Kathy Bates in Misery all of a sudden. Except lamer because she’s wailing and self-mutilating instead of taking it out on him. It’s just awkward to watch. Girl needs a sassy gay friend. And none of these people are as cool as they think they are.

And the rest of the book is basically one long chest pound. I guess there’s the part where he goes to Hades, and lo, he knows folk there. I’m kind of bitter about the whole thing because Juno’s so funny and great in The Iliad and such a loser here. Again, Akira Kurosawa probably could have turned it into a pretty decent movie. I don’t really get the frenzying thing, but Kurosawa seemed to have liked it. And, if you like people to run around, chopping limbs off and then whining and blustering for a while, you might really click with this book. ” – Sparrow’s review

Since my interest in quantitative dactyllic hexameter was for the writing of an Alexander epic in the style of the Iliad, I took this as encouragement. Virgil, it seems, wrote fan fiction too.

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Filed under Classic Crowe, Gladiator, Poetry