Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Things I learned from Wikipedia, Volume 1

"[Paul] Krugman says that his interest in economics began with Isaac Asimov's Foundation novels, in which the social scientists of the future use "psychohistory" to attempt to save civilization. As psychohistory does not currently exist, Krugman turned to economics, which he considered the next best thing."

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Tweets from Underground

far and away the funniest email message I received in 2008:
"Fyodor Dostoyevsky is now following you on Twitter!"

Thursday, June 26, 2008

philosophical trajectories

Nassim Nicholas Taleb offers some speculative refutations of the European assumption that philosophy's geographical trajectory flows from Greece eastward (Read notes 94 and 94b). His thesis is interesting, but I don't believe that he successfully makes his case, in part because he's doing little more than inverting the wrongheaded Eurocentric knowledge-transmission paradigm he's critiquing. I'd argue that the paradigm is wrong, not just the directionality implied in Western historical account.

[Do read Taleb's account even if you're not particularly interested in speculative philosophical histories, as his opening paragraph offers some great observations on poverty and elegance in India vs. The West, among other things, and there's a terrific excerpt from a Herman Hesse short story (in French) at the end of 94b.]

I agree with Taleb's assertion that the Syriac roots of many later Academy philosophers implies that the pre-Umayyad Levant was likely a center of a now-lost philosophical tradition. However, I think that the timeline offered by Taleb's evidence for Syriac import in the Greek philosophical tradition implies that this center may have been a product of Hellenization. One could plausibly argue that Neoplatonic thought was largely spearheaded by a Syrian tradition that existed in both Syria and Greece (Agathias attests to the Syrian influence in Athens; the lack of Syrian sources leaves an open question as to Syrian side of the equation). Perhaps there was an Apameia-Athens Axis in this period? Iamblichus founded a school in Apameia, where Numenius also practiced (and where Posidonius was born in the waning days of the heavily Hellenizing Selucid Empire). This idea of a Syrian-Greek philosophical axis fits with Taleb's suggestion that Greek was a lingua franca for Syrian intellectual life even during the Umayyad. Doesn't this imply the deep impact of Greek culture in Syria during the post- Alexander period? Taleb also points to the prevalence of Syrain skeptics to support his thesis. I'm not familiar with the specific skeptics he cites, but Pyrrhonism and Academic skepticism are both products of the Hellenized period.

The roots of this Syriac philosophical tradition could be from one of two sources: an already established Syrian philosophical tradition is fused into / incorporated within Greek traditions, or Greek cultural influence creates a philosophical tradition in Syria that draws on Syrian intellectual heritage while existing simultaneously under Greek and Syrian cultural umbrellas. The line between these two concepts is very close indeed, as all societies have implicit ontologies that can be found in (and grow from) language and social structure, and few societies find themselves without a philosophical tradition of some sort. What's perhaps most important are the mechanisms of transmission and incorporation, a process we can explore through one of Taleb's other examples: Pyrrho.

Taleb's note that "Pyrrho went east with Alexander & almost certainly encountered all the syncretistic systems developed there" is extended in note 94b, where Taleb 'traces' the notion of αταραξια (ataraxia) to the philosophical worldview of the "Orient." There's not much of a case made here for sourcing the concept; instead he explicates αταραξια via 2 stories: one in Arabic (which I cannot read) and another fragment from Hesse in French (which I recommend). Taleb's claim that this sort of knowledge seems irrevocably a part of his experience with Arabic wisdom strikes me as irrelevant to the source of this knowledge, an anecdote that says more about the legacy of these ideas than their source.

The task of actual conceptual sourcing is of course impossible, but we can establish a few basic principles of cultural transmission. First, we should remember that at certain moments in human history there are ideas that seem logically inevitable next steps. Human culture frequently finds itself addressing the same dilemmas even in distant locales. Secondly, we should note that cultural transmission invariably entails the work of translation in more than just a linguistic sense: concepts must be made to fit into different systems of knowledge than the one(s) from which they come. An idea lifted from one place may become something entirely new upon landing in a new one. The processes by which it changes are multiple, but I consider two main modes of change to be primary ones. The new cultural contexts may be different enough that a faithfully-rendered concept becomes something entirely new (as cinematic montage changes the meaning of shots by way of changing the surrounding material). Alternately, the mediator may be responsible for choosing methods of mediation that warp the original meaning and create a new set of contexts that would be new even in the original language and culture.

We can see the combined approaches of these first two methods of concept-transmission in the development of Christian religious ideology in the first 100 or 200 years after the death of Jesus. I'm referring to the way in which Christianity is a remolding of various ideas common in the mystery cults of the Graeco-Roman world. Most of these mystery cults themselves were products of this process, with roots in deities worshiped in conquered lands (though the resultant belief systems had little to do with the original beliefs associated with the deities). Early Christian iconography seems closely related to the iconography of Mithraism. The cult of Isis and that of the Magna Mater seem to prefigure the special roles assigned to the Virgin Mary. Resurrection is an important theme in these mystery religions (easily seen in the cults of Osiris, Attis, Adonis, Dionysis, etc). The Eucharist combines traditions of sacral kingship and theophagic rituals that entail eating the body of a fertility god. There was even a Christian defense of these prior practices as false imitators set forth by the devil through interpretation of the Hebrew Bible's prophetic references to Jesus. Justin Martyr, in his Dialogue with Trypho:
"For when they tell that Bacchus, son of Jupiter, was begotten by intercourse with Semele, and that he was the discoverer of the vine; and when they relate, that being torn in pieces, and having died, he rose again, and ascended to heaven; and when they introduce wine into his mysteries, do I not perceive that the devil has imitated the prophecy announced by the patriarch Jacob, and recorded by Moses?"
It's also important to mention that these mystery cult beliefs - which were widespread throughout the Roman Empire of the early days of Christianity - lay a partial groundwork for conversion that helps Chrisitianity flourish, but that also effects Church doctrine as the Church hones its message to broaden its reach [think of the importance of the Council of Jerusalem in making Christianity available to the cultures of the Roman Empire].

Sandmel makes the point that these connections are not necessarily influences but perhaps natural expressions of tendencies of human mythmaking. All this implies the question: is Pyrrhonian αταραξια a philosophical 'discovery' common to humans, or is it (also) the product of a world of influences?

An excellent example of the third method of appropriation is the development of 20th Century philosophy in France, a story that 'begins' with Alexandre Kojève. Kojève (Kandinsky's nephew, incidentally) studied philosophy in Germany, where his major influences included Heidegger and Marx in addition to his primary interest in Hegel. From 1933 to 1939, Kojève lectured on Hegel's The Phenomenology of Spirit at the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris. For his seminar, Kojève translated Hegel himself, as well as translating on the fly from German to French during his lectures. Kojève's translations reflected an idiosyncratic post-Hegelian system of his own creation, combining a Marxist teleology with a rereading of Hegel using the vocabulary of Heideggerrian subjectivity (sadly, my notes on his rpecise chocie of words in French are not at hand). In fusing Heideggerrian terms to Hegelian ontology Kojève plants the seeds of postwar Continental philosophy in any number of directions: his students included Raymond Queneau, Georges Bataille, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Andre Breton, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Lacan and Raymond Aron, and his influence has also been cited by Derrida and Foucault. The encounter of these thinkers with Hegel (and Heidegger) via Kojève is a traceable root of many works by these thinkers.

Similarly, Pyrrho's return to Greece with a modified "Eastern" notion of αταραξια was a tremendous influence on later Greek thought, though not directly through Pyrrho. Pyrrho's influence was mainly felt after Aenesidemus's publication of the Pyrrhonian Discourses more than 200 years after Pyrrho's death. Likewise, it seems that Pyrrho's pupil Timon was mainly influential for his poetic and dramatic works - until his philosophical influence was picked up by Sextus Empiricus in the 2nd (?) Century AD.

Timon is an important stepping stone towards our quest for sourcing Pyrrhonian skepticism and the (translated) wisdom of "the East"; when Timon was asked by Aratus how to obtain the pure texts of Homer, he answered: "If we could find the old copies, and not those with modern emendations." We encounter the same problems not just with Syriac philosophical traditions, but also with the Greek, and with Pyrrho in particular. Pyrrho seems not to have written down his ideas (shades of Socrates); Timon, like Plato for his teacher, is the key written source for Pyrrho's later disciples.

Pyrrho's travels with Alexander's army led him to study with Indian Gymnosophists and Persian Magi. However, to attribute his knowledge to encounters with eastern philosophers seems misleading; Pyrrho's thought seems in many ways an extension of the skepticism of Zeno of Elea and the Sophists (a form of acatalepsia), combined with the Cynicism of Antisthenes (a precursor to ataraxia?). I find it plausible that his studies in the "East" allowed for a renewed approach toward the knowledge of his Greek philosophical tradition, and that his thought upon returning is a sort of reverse-Hellenistic syncretism - that is, a return of the foreign ideas to Greece in the form of already-existent Greek philosophical ideas. That these ideas are not picked up by the Greek philosophical tradition in earnest until centuries later adds another level of abstraction and cultural translation, but we should be aware that our contemporary view of the Greek and Asian philosophical traditions is colored by the incompleteness of our knowledge and the works now forever lost.

How did the Pyrrhonian skeptics arrive at their ideas of happiness and possible knowledge? We cannot know; we can only be happy that they did.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Cowboys Don't Cry Because Rape is Not Sex in Desolation Row

If you can look at this without giggling in a pained oh-god-the-labels way, you are a better person than I. Note: the Statue of Liberty is not Bob Dylan. This is a painting by Bob Dylan.

This can never touch my love for Tangled Up in Blue, of course, but my enjoyment of Temporary Like Achilles has been retroactively damaged.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Rolling over, lazily swatting a fly, returning to sleep

This is far too trivial a post with which to return to blogging on this blog. I have firm, fine intentions about once again putting up actual honest-to-YHWH substantive posts which merit reading, consideration, and commentary, commentary which exists at a higher intellectual level than simply pointing out that I should have said "that," not "which," in the front end of this sentence. However, the gap between intentions and actions is the fuel of all good drama, and it'd be churlish and gradgrindian to simply bridge it over so soon after introducing it. Let's all just take a moment to appreciate the gap. The gap abides.

But so anyway, in working on state health care reform, you look at what other states have done quite a lot, and there have been a few that've done pretty large-scale reforms lately. Among these is Vermont, which a couple years back set up a reasonably well-subsidized program to help lower-income folks get coverage. They unfortunately haven't had as many people enroll as they'd predicted, however. The conventional explanation for this is that the economy is bad, and uninsured people are getting squeezed in other ways so they still don't want to pick up insurance. I, however, have an alternate explanation:

The name of Vermont's program is Catamount Care.

If you are like me, you have no idea what a catamount is. Probably some region in Vermont? I dunno; see the first sentence of this paragraph.

However, if you are like me, you might know what a catamite is.

Maybe this is an implausible assertion, but given e.g. the U.K. examples of mobs going after registered paediatricians living in the neighbourhood, maybe it isn't. At any rate the association isn't pleasant: "We'll take care of you like you're the kept boy-toy of a sexual predator!", etc.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Don't Forget to Vote

- for me and Nikhil for our class president and vice president. :) (Yes, I am shamelessly plugging for my campaign on our blog.) Check your email first for a message from Exeter providing your ID and password. On an unrelated note - no one is at all as surprised as I was at the cargo cult around Rambo among the Kamula in PNG? or the one about submarines?

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Anthology of Interest!

Or, Tit-Bits for the Verodobbsically inclined.

["Verodobbsical" is not a word, but 1) I find it hilarious and 2) using it on this page cruelly denies the good folks at Crooked Timber a Googlewhack. Mwa-ha!]

* * * * *

I just purchased the new Sons and Daughters album on iTunes (preliminary assessment, three tracks in: I am annoying my downstairs neighbor with my stomping, and my across-the-way neighbors with my manic air-guitaring. Approval!) and on said iTunes page, there is this one-star review: "For the rest of us with good taste in music we'll head over to Three Days Grace and Linkin Park - Where REAL rock is formulated!" All [sics] originally [sicced], of course. But seriously. Linkin Park -- where real rock is formulated. I know this is too good to be anything but taking the piss, but had to share.

* * * * *

Similarly, you might have noticed that on Monday, Pakistanian elections dealt a severe blow to Pervez Musharraf. Then this morning, Castro relinquished his grip on power. Pundits might expel much ink searching for the root causes of this bad week for tyranny (I have high hopes for Thursday!) but I feel the need to point out a simple fact: new Mountain Goats album.

* * * * *

I very much enjoyed this NYT article on how amazed everybody was that an MTA employee correctly used a semicolon on a subway sign. The semicolon, as the trail of my writings well attest, is the punctuation mark most surrounded by flowery pink hearts in the Trapper Keeper of my mind. But this discussion of mild literacy of the subway put me in mind of what I pass every morning on my commute:

This is an art installation, currently in the Wilshire/Normandie Metro stop in LA, entitled "The Complete Works of Roland Barthes." It's a series of photos of people holding up (unattractive editions of) every one of Barthes' books in turn. The artist's blurb on the side says that "[e]ncountering images of people reading may trigger a reminder that reading might be a good idea." Also, "[t]hese Los Angeles artists, interacting with books, represent a cross-section of the City." I know I am not one to talk, but this strikes me as the most hilariously pretentious thing ever -- I am trying to estimate in the history of the LA subway system how many times anyone has read anything by Barthes while riding on it, and if that number is in the three digits I'll be surprised.

* * * * * *

I dunno whether you guys have seen this, but as best I can determine (and this is all quite tentative, since it's complicated enough I don't have a great grasp of things), McCain secured a loan for his campaign by putting up public financing as collateral -- that is, he took out a loan from a bank, and promised that if he couldn't repay it, he'd stay in the presidential race and request public funding (the system in which candidates can opt out of raising money from donors and get money from the gov't instead -- you have an option of checking a box in your taxes to fund this), then use that to pay back the loan. There are more complications -- he had public financing, then he didn't, then he was maybe thinking of getting back in. And because it is so wonky, there's no way the story will ever have any traction in the media or with the public. But it's sufficiently slimy that I'm wracking my brains for comparable examples of legal legerdemain that don't end in someone going to jail.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

My Sweetest Downfall

So I was thinking this morning in the shower about Oedipus Rex.[1] When we highly self-impressed people refer to Sophocles' play, we invariably say Oedipus Rex, not the English translation of "Oedipus the King." Well, of course -- far better to say things in their original tongue, after all. You just sound *smarter* if you say "Shichinin no Samurai," or "Malleus Malificarum," or whatever. And even if we don't say "A la Recherche du Temps Perdu," we do prefer to say "In Search of Lost Time" rather than "Remembrance of Things Past," these days.

Problem is, I thought to myself in the shower, the name of the play obviously can't be "Oedipus Rex." Rex is Latin, which Sophocles surely wasn't writing in! So Oedipus the King -- king in ancient Greek is usually "basileus," I thought, though now that I check the title of the play is actually Oedipus Tyrannus. The Greek title's clearly the more authentic, so why hasn't it caught on?

I've done only some lackadasical Googling on this, but I have turned up an 1880s translation that uses the proper title, and some more recent scholarship seems to push for the original name. But I'm deeply curious as to how this change happened -- I presume it has to do with available translations and when scholarly attention was first focused on the play. Aristotle's Poetics mentions the play several times, I know, and this helpful page on The Name of the Rose points out that post-Medieval knowledge of the Poetics is traceable to translations of the work into Arabic and Latin, which would seem to tell a simple-enough story -- given Aristotle's intellectual dominance, having the primary references to Oedipus be in the Latin translation available to scholars would create a great structural bias in favor of the Rex appelation (apparently the direct Greek-to-Latin translation was mostly ignored in favor of a Latin translation of the Arabic translation, but the point stands).

The only problem with this is that Aristotle refers to the work as "the Oedipus" or "Sophocles' Oedipus" (I've checked this, as best as I'm able, against the Greek original of the text; I don't speak the language, of couse, but "toi oidipodi" seems clearly to omit the "king" portion). And at any rate this noodling about omits the critical question of when the play first received concentrated attention from the scholarly community -- it might have been in the humanist revival of the Renaissance that attitudes and appelations were fixed, after all, in which case we'd still expect Latin but Aristotle's hegemony would be less, er, hegemonic.

Probably this is overthinking the question far too much -- Latin dominated scholarly discourse for centuries, so of course there's a structural bias in favor of the Latin name -- but still, the fact that it's persisted, when other Greek works are known by their orginal titles (cf. the Odyssey, which is a slight bastardization of Oduessia or however you want to transliterate it, but clearly cues off of the Greek rather than the Latin Ulysses) is a bit puzzling. An intro to the play would probably be handy for laying out the scholarly treatment of Sophocles, which would likely provide further clues, but sadly I didn't bring my copy out to CA with me, and I'm too lazy to check further online, since it's time for breakfast.

[1] This is not as perverse as it sounds. I've been reading a book on the bible[2], and, before going to sleep last night, I'd read through a bit about Samson. Predictably, I was thinking about this as I woke up -- wondering about the similarities in the birth stories between Samson and Samuel, for example, though I think the coincidences there really are just coincidences, inasmuch as there was a whole class of "nazirites," so-called, holy men who refused to cut their hair, and you'd need some etiological explanation for why their parents had so dedicated them. Infertility until god intervenes is a logical place to go. Anyway, but so this got me singing the Regina Spektor song Samson, because I enjoy singing in the shower far too much. But in turn that got me thinking about how Regina means "queen" in Latin, a fact which for the first time prompted me to think how weird it would be if the name Reginald was somehow a masculinized version of Regina and derived indirectly from Rex (usually the feminine forms derive from the masculine, I've found) (and it turns out Reginald is actually from the German, ragin=advice + wald=rule, which further confuses things because those sure sound like the attributes of a king, don't they?). At any rate, I had "rex" on my mind, which led inevitably to Oedipus.

[2] Specifically, I'm reading How to Read the Bible, by James Kugel (first link goes to the Amazon page, second to the NYT review). It goes through more or less chapter by chapter comparing the way that the traditional interpretation was constructed, and then walking through the modern scholars' historical and interpretive findings. It's quite a lot of fun, though -- one short section on how Jacob tricked Esau out of his birthright is headed "Jacob's Back Pages," for example. "My Back Pages" is a Bob Dylan song -- even if you don't know the name, you've heard it: "I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now" -- and the title plays with the facts that 1) Dylan's son is named Jacob and 2) Dylan is another Jew who changed his name.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Hippies and Vaseline

So I get email from Greenpeace. Usually I just delete without reading it, because you know how that goes, but they're doing one of their hippies vs. whalers things, where they have their ship physically tail whaling vessels and try to get them not to kill the whales and then bring them forward in time to save the Federation. True Story Swear To God. Anyway. So I'm reading it and I read:

"For eleven days, we've been chasing the Japanese whaling factory ship Nisshin Maru through Antarctic waters."

And thought, "hang on!"

Quick Googling confirmed that my brain was not misfiring, and that as I thought, this is the same ship used in the filming of Matthew Barney's Drawing Restraint 9.

One constructs scenarios. Are captured Greenpeace activists dismembered until they turn into whales? What happens if the whalers' strategic supply of vaseline is disrupted? Which poor sailor has to sleep in the cabin where Barney and Bjork had cinematic kinky whale-sex?

[I should note before closing that I know I owe more substantive posts; unfortunately, life's been busy; viz., I'm red-eyeing it to DC tonight, and am posting this from the Sacramento airport, where I've just left a 9.5 hour hearing that hadn't quite finished by the time I left because I had to catch my flight, and which parenthetically looks set to kill the big health care bill I've been working on these past four months. Which is to say, my brain is too fried to post anything involving big words, likely will be so fried in the immediate future, but if the bill gets voted down I should have some more free time!]

[Incidentally, that post title should really bring in the perv demo to our humble blog. I do my bit!]

Saturday, January 12, 2008

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love Redux

For any Raymond Carver fans out there, The New Yorker recently published an early draft of the story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, titled Beginners.

An accompanying article and some additional supplementary material demonstrate the influence of Carver's editor, Gordon Lish, who turns out to have had a larger than usual impact on Carver's writing.

I went back and re-read What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and then read Beginners. What We Talk About is definitely the better story. It's tighter, less self-indulgent, and cuts out a lot of the fat and redundancy of Beginners.

Carver's widow and past collaborator, Tess Gallagher, wants to republish more of his works in their "original" form. Beginners is just a start. She feels that Lish crossed a line and compromised Carver's artistic integrity in the drastic edits. Granted, the edits were pretty severe in the case of What We Talk About but the work as a whole was definitely better for it. What we lose is not the rambling genius of a Melville or a Thackeray, as Gallagher might want us to believe. We simply lose much of the redundant and frankly unnecessary description. It is a matter of greater artistic discipline, the outcome of which is reaching a place of meaning previously unattainable.