Saturday, February 27, 2010

Saturday Rock Show

I have been very uploading my CD library to my iTunes library. I had no idea I had so many Grateful Dead CDs. I have no "favorite" Dead song, but I think "Franklin's Tower" is one of those get down and dance, sing-along and shout songs. This performance, from 1980, captures this song better than most performances I have heard or seen.

Most Horrible Statement By An Elected Official

One would think that, even if you had a thought like this, a member of Congress would be intelligent enough to keep it to himself.

As John Hurt, playing the wandmaker Ollivander in the first Harry Potter movie, says: Apparently not.

"It seems like humanity is very gifted at hiding from something that's obviously true. I mean in this country we had slavery for God knows how long. And now we look back on it and we say, 'Well how blind were they, what was the matter with them, you know, I can't believe, I mean four million, this is incredible,'" said Franks. "And we're right. We're right, we should look back on that with criticism. It is a crushing mark on America's soul. And yet today, half of all black children are aborted. Half of all black children are aborted. Far more black children, far more of the African-American community is being devastated by the policies of today, than were being devastated by the policies of slavery.

"And I think, what does it take to get us to wake up? Sometimes we're a little bit emphatic and sometimes we get angry and say things that we shouldn't say. And I apologize right here in front of everybody by saying things, especially if they're not true, that are intemperate. But I don't want to hide from the truth, I don't want to hide from being able to speak the truth intensely, with the hope that somehow it will resonate in the hearts of people who have the power to make a difference for the suffering of the innocent that are the victims of these bad policies."

Quite honestly, I cannot even begin to fathom such a mind.

The Third Transcendental

For what really is [Susan Sontag's] New Sensibility? Perhaps it is just an expanded sensibility, a richer and more generous definition of what “counts” as art: not a lowering of standards, but an expansion of candidates to be judged by the criteria specific to their mediums and movements. Moreover it is a willingness, or more accurately, an enthusiasm to contend with new aesthetics and new ideas.
Rachel Rosenfelt & Jennifer Bernstein, The New Inquiry

What is "beauty"? In classical (read Thomistic) metaphysics, it along with "truth" and "goodness" are known as "transcendentals", qualities that a thing possesses, inherent in and to them. Beauty is an "it", some thing to be explored.

Since Kant's critiques, however, this entire approach seems not just intellectually dubious but even kind of silly. Yet, we western folks, unable to rest easily with the reality that there are some things we can appreciate - painting and sculpture, music and architecture, photography and literature - without having to ask the question, "Why?", wrestle with the question, "What is art?"

The above epigram is from a rich essay at The New Inquiry, which mines two other, equally rich essays. The first, from Scott McLemee, is a marvelous appreciation for the work of Andy Warhol*. The second is a nearly-30 year old essay by George Scialabba on Susan Sontag. All three essays deal with the question, "What is art?" All three seem to conclude that it might, indeed, be some thing, a ding-an-sich that, like Nietzsche's disdainful definition ("I know not what"), that nevertheless defies any clear definition. Scott praises Warhol's mimesis, yet also cites without criticism a review of one of his early short films that calls Warhol out for nihilism. George praises Sontag for being provocative, for being daring, while also (it seems to me, at least) not pointing out the glaring discrepancy between his own, highly moral approach to understanding, and Sontag's insistence that aesthetics eschew a moral sensibility for something akin to ars gratia artis. The ladies at The New Inquiry suggest, in closing, that aesthetics is "wholly subjective".

While not wishing to disagree with four individuals who are not only far more intelligent, but far more articulate, than I could ever hope to be, I do want to take issue with this final notion. Indeed, I want to make the point that, if it is indeed true that our appreciation for beauty is nothing more than stapling our preferences upon the world (and here I can almost quote Feodor's comment on this post; being as I appreciate Rorty's approach to understanding the world which can be so described, a criticism based on a rejection of this way of understanding the world seems like a contradiction), then we should be clear that "criticism" as a cultural past time is moot.

Or, perhaps, we could say that both art and criticism are whatever we call art and criticism, after a lengthy, heated conversation in which participants come to some sort of conclusion as to the relative merit of applying those terms to specific forms (far more Rortyan here, I think).

An example. A recent commenter insists that Andres Soranno's provocative photograph "Piss Christ" has no artistic value. I, in turn, believe it does, albeit an adolescent one. Without desiring to denigrate this commenter, I must ask, "OK, what are your criterion for deciding what is, and what is not, art?" Is it, as you say, something you know when you encounter it? If that's the case, there must be some sort of criteria, unarticulated yet coherent enough to provide a basis for an aesthetic judgment, that you apply when you encounter something.

My point in all this is quite simple: Determining something as difficult to grasp, collectively, as beauty should be a case-study in Rortyan social conversation. We should agree that there might just be things in the world - films and books, paintings and buildings, music and photographs - to which we can apply that word and not rob it of any meaning. After at least reaching that agreement, which does not include any preconceptions about "high" versus "pop", "moral" or "immoral", "sublime" and "horrific", perhaps we can understand that criticism might just be a necessary first step in redefining, at each instance, what that word means for us as a society. In this sense, at least, we can move beyond tired and unintelligible discussions about subjective versus objective, moral and immoral, and restore to beauty something akin to its prior place as something transcendent.

*This single essay has completely changed my mind about Warhol. Thanks, Scott.

Prayers For Chile

Oh dear. While Chilean society has the infrastructure to deal with this crisis that Haiti does not, they will still be in dire need.

Plus, that's one big quake.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

An Open Invitation

I am going to attempt an experiment. I know Alan won't see the point of it; to be honest, it may not be fruitful. Yet, in an attempt at fairness (whatever that may mean), I am going to try it. I am going to post invites for some folks to address a simple question. Their answers will be allowed, without rebuttal (as far as that is possible). I want to offer a completely open forum for the airing of opinions here without getting in to any kind of argument, hurt feelings, etc.

The question is this:

Conservatives argue that Pres. Obama is a socialist. Since actual socialists have been pretty critical of his Presidency, how would you support the argument that he is, in fact, a socialist?

He Had No Staff

Disgraced former House Speaker Newt Gingrich:
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said yesterday that many Capitol Hill staffers have never worked at a real job. “Of course it’s the nature of the modern Congress, which hires lots of nice young staffers who have never had a real job,” said Gingrich. He added that they “spent their entire life being arrogant to visitors from back home” and “write legislation as though they have some contact with reality.”

So . . .

He manages to insult thousands of hard-working public servants, including members of his former office staff.

Except, considering Gingrich's history of evasion of something resembling contact with facts, it might just be he didn't have a staff to keep him up from putting his foot in his mouth.

That would explain a lot.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

All That's Missing Is The Thorazine

For some reason, some folks are up in arms about the CPAC Conference.

Me, I thought it was all the result of deinstitutionalization.

Lucky there weren't too many squirrels about, because they would have feasted on the nuts.

Religious Belief

A website to which I have been recently introduced is hosting a discussion forum on conservative thought, on February 27th, in Brooklyn. They will be considering conservative thought in several social and cultural areas, including religion (dear to my own heart). One of the readings they offer is a 1982 review article by George Scialabba, considering works by Kolakowski, MacIntyre, and Rorty.

In the article, Scialabba makes the typical modernist argument, not the least of whose highlights is the repeated assertion that with the arrival of the modernist project - the Enlightenment, Romanticism, the various 20th century responses to these movements - the intellectual assent to religious propositions, and therefore religious "belief" considered as intellectual assent to a set of such propositions, is now untenable. This may or may not be the case; while the French philosophes certainly were not concerned with upholding religious belief, many of the great Enlightenment thinkers (with the possible exception of Hume) certainly included religion within their sphere of interest. Locke, Hobbes, Kant, Hegel - all wrote extensively on "religion", which for them meant Christianity. Of course, Hegel considered other religions, although he thought of Christianity as the highest form of religious belief (in this vein, the Romanticist theologian Schleiermacher did as well; while they politely detested one another, they shared this at least).

Yet, few social movements have failed to die as easily as religion should have.

My question is quite simple - if religious belief should have ended when the intellectual superstructure underlying it became untenable, why didn't it? Could it be, perhaps, that, like Christmas Day for the Who's in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, religious belief is something a little bit more than the ex post facto intellectual justifications for it?

Monday, February 22, 2010

Experiment In Liberty

A book review in The New York Times considers Timothy Ferris' new book.

No real deep thoughts, just wondering if the caveat at the end of the review article is more a contemporary development, unrelated to the origins of both.

Music For Your Monday

I heard a week or two ago that an archive of Soul Train has been digitally remastered and is being released in multi-disc format. I spent many Saturday afternoons as a kid watching Don Cornelius and the Dance Line, listening to some of the best 70's soul and funk. It was one of the best musical educations I received.

First, the kings of the Philly sound (where Cornelius' show originated), the O'Jays with "Backstabbers"

Wow, I had forgotten about The S.O.S. Band! Here they are with "Take Your Time".

I love this next song. Much better than the stupid remake of it by Simply Red. This is Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes, "If You Don't Know Me By Now":

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Blogging In A Time Without Crisis

Along with Delumeau's sprawling history of the idea of sin, I am also reading Simon Schama's equally ambitious Citizens (must be a French phase; hope it doesn't last too long). One of Schama's arguments is that the Revolution developed, in part, because of a sense of crisis over the nation's finances. Various royal ministers during the reign of Louis XVI attempted to deal with national debt without any consistency; indeed, subsequent ministerial cohorts would repudiate the policies of their predecessors. By the time the Estates-General was called, there was a sense of crisis among the people that was not necessarily shared by various crown ministers. The disjunction seemed to be that the King's ministers, regardless of policy preference, believed the red ink could be rid through various policies. The newly politicized bourgeois and their representatives in the E-G, however, did not so believe. Eventually, this divide became too great to sustain the regime as it had existed.

The unanswered question, of course, is was the national debt a crisis? It obviously became one; whether or not the flow of money from the government could be stopped through a stern application of political will cannot be answered because, quite simply, politics had ceased to function at the end of the ancien regime. No one was willing to make the crucial decisions, the unpopular decisions necessary to set the ship of state aright. Even the Revolution, as it developed, didn't deal specifically with the financial quagmire; rather, it treated it as symptomatic of institutional problems that could only be solved through the steady and progressive abolition of various older governmental forms.

The years of Republican governance were years of governance by crisis management. Every event, every public pronouncement, every piece of legislation - it all seemed to relate to some pending horrid national nightmare. Even the pre-9/11 Bush Administration treated something as relatively inconsequential as embryonic stem-cell research as something akin to a crisis. The problem, of course, is the past decade really saw few crises. The September 11th attacks, whatever else they signified, were not a crisis. An event of significant national import to be sure. Not an event necessitating a radical shift in our entire national life, however.

Part of the problem that comes with seeing events, big and small, as crises is there is no sense of perspective. Crisis management is a kind of administrative skill, really only necessary to oversee the unfolding of events with a coolness and clear-headedness that, for all their vaunted and alleged skills, the Republicans and Bush Administration officials seemed to lack. Tossing about on the winds of crisis is no way to exist, let alone govern.

The Obama Administration's outstanding virtue is its refusal to bow to pressure to view governance as crisis management. The Republican opposition, and their currently most vocal constituency, the Tea Baggers, are dedicated to crisis. Their view, not only of our current economic, social, and cultural predicament, but the Administration of Barack Obama is one of on-going crisis. The nation is in peril. Our country is facing the destruction of its most treasured values. The Constitution is in peril. Obama is a socialist bent on overturning our capitalist system. He's coming after our guns, our money, our fetuses.

Unlike the historical example of the French at the time of the Revolution, I think this gap between the perceptions of the governing class and a vocal constituency of the state is not one that could lead to trouble. For one reason, the Tea Baggers just aren't that numerous. For all the noise they make, and for all the press and Republicans dote upon them, they really have no power other than attracting attention. For another reason, while there might be good reason to see our various economic woes as a set of crises to be addressed more forcefully than the President and his advisers have up until now, the never-ending stream of crises under George W. Bush has made us a little numb to the call for solidarity in the face of impending doom. We elected Barack Obama in part, I think, precisely because he has a cool, detached demeanor. He presents himself as someone who understand that we face "problems", not "crises". Furthermore, he presents himself as someone with the competence to address these "problems" without resorting to overheated rhetoric.

While this makes for a more calm approach to federal governance, it makes blogging a little boring. In 2007, there was an abundant supply of Bush Administration folks saying and doing stuff that was just outrageous. Now, out of power, these same folks continue to say outrageous stuff, but it only seems to impact a bunch of liberal bloggers who think it actually means something. Rather than the daily outrage, we have the long slog of the health care reform debate; the impending financial reform and regulation debate; and, one hopes sometime soon, a serious discussion of cap-and-trade legislation. This is government-in-normal-time that seems so unfamiliar precisely because we have become inured to so many voices in positions of authority demanding attention to this or that national crisis.

It's kind of nice, actually.

Virtual Tin Cup

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