Dial D for Despair

For a skinny, maladjusted kid growing up itinerant amid the stifling fens of American public school systems, portable refuges of stability were rare, cherished things. I had my dog-eared copy of The Hobbit. I had my pocket knife, favored by the alpine fighting forces of the Republic of Switzerland. And most reliable of all, I had the periodic table of elements. Books can be left out in the rain, or accidentally dropped into a campfire. Pocket knives can be lost or stolen. But the very elements of nature themselves? I never worried about losing a copy of the table once I had taught myself to recreate it from memory. Wherever I might wander, the halogens were and shall always be fluorine, chlorine, bromine, iodine, and (theoretically) astatine. The alkali metals are lithium, sodium, potassium, rubidium, cesium, and francium, now and evermore. No matter how many friends I had to say goodbye to for the last time, no matter how many piles of boxes I would have to pack and unpack, no matter how many miles of lonesome highway I rumbled over entombed in heavy Detroit steel, molybdenum boasted an atomic number of 42, then and in all the days to come. Some kids have a security blanket or a favorite stuffed animal. I had the periodic table of elements. Continue reading “Dial D for Despair”

An Aggressive Argument for More Aggressive Argument

The comment and contribution guidelines for this blog open with an observation, “internet discussions frequently are neither respectful nor enjoyable, nor really conversations.”  That is a point that is difficult to contest. Everyone knows the internet is an intellectual and political shithole.  Thus the instructions continue: “Conversation here is respectful.  That means it is not insulting and it gives the benefit of the doubt.” These are laudable goals.  We would like folks to be good and charitable listeners.  But it is not clear that saying, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all,” is the best way to get more—and more open—discussion.

Elites, in my view, want to have it both ways.  We want to cherish and protect the rights of the screaming plebes . . . but keep them out of our back yard.  I will argue here that without more fully embracing screaming plebeianism, the otherwise sophisticated and correct academic prescriptions for more rhetoric, more debate, more interdisciplinarity, more ideological diversity, will stay unrealized.  Academic culture varies between a self help group, kindergarten sharing circle, and a buttoned-up sixteenth century court.  These performances of dispassion and emotional empathy are well intentioned, but they frustrate real intellectual confrontation.  Should we give up the game completely and just scream at each other?  No.  But probably more screaming is good for us.

Sharp argument, barbed snark, one liners, insults, can and often do lead to sweet talk and understanding.  It is not the case that in an argument (any more than an actual fight) if one party pulls a gun, the other will pull a nuke.  There is an intuition we have that if person A gives offense, person B will up the ante, and both will end up in a prisoner’s dilemma.  In this view, anything nasty starts a race to the bottom of the shithole.  That strikes me as a cynical view that forgets that there is more than one way to fight.

One can respond to aggression with ever nastier aggression, sure.  Or one can respond with passive aggression.  For every British imperialist there is a line of Gandhi salt marchers.  It is important to embrace and invite British imperialists to the table.  Violent comments are often the first sputters of something that has not been broached before. Transgressing commonly held beliefs is like a breakup.  There is no good way to do it.  It is uncomfortable, but people are not cowards who cannot handle being dumped.

We generally recognize the the benefits of resolving issues—even issues that are being spat at us—and the value of defending our reputations at an insult.  Screaming matches are exhausting and no one can keep them up forever.  So screaming matches often evolve into passive aggressive battles to gain the moral high ground.  We cannot have passive aggressive argument—sweet talk—to the exclusion of shit-giving direct aggression.  They rely on one another.  Without journalists and television pundits, scientists and humanists have no claim to superiority.  Without coddled and cotton mouthed academics, journalists and television pundits have no claim to keepin’-it-real superiority.

Allow me propose a hypothesis: all argument is a fight and that the goal is to win, but it is a fight more like economic competition than a street fight.  Like market exchanges, one party may win more handsomely than the other, but both get ahead.  We seem to have characterized some arguments as non-aggressive not-fights because we are terrified that aggressive argument is zero sum, a street fight.  We are (maybe reasonably) scared that aggressive arguments lead to fists, or to taking our ball and going back home to our epistemic camp.  But that is not the case! Argument, even the “you’re acting just like your mother” kind, is for the most part prosocial and positive sum.

George Lakoff points out in Metaphors We Live By, that a foundational metaphor in America is that Argument Is War.  Take these examples:

  • “His criticisms were right on target.”
  • “You disagree? Okay, shoot!

We all seem to intuitively agree that argument is a fight.  The question then becomes why rational agents would continue to fight, to argue, if argument a zero sum assurance of mutual destruction.  The answer seems pretty simple: it’s not. And so we ought to be less afraid of argument.

Both sides of an exchange, even an aggressive exchange, in the marketplace of ideas inevitably concede points in order to gain others.  Sometimes people concede points in more humble and direct ways, “I take your point, and…”  But even the interlocutor who is too freshly disabused to admit error takes the lessons home.  Poignant phrases haunt him until he reasons them through.  He leaves behind arguments he’ll never make again, and gives his opponent bits that she will digest later.

Not every argument can or should be polite and disinterested.  In fact if we take the metaphor of market exchange seriously, when we put people to debate who have no interest in the outcome, and who want to avoid high stakes exchange, we impoverish everyone.  We elites ought to not just ensure and protect a society where Donald Trump can sound off like a racist sack of dicks, or where Larry Flynt can show up to the Supreme Court with his balls wrapped in an American flag.  We ought to accept, welcome, embrace, and encourage it.  Even and especially on the internet and more so on campus.

Such is my purpose in making this point, again, to academics on the internet.  I once argued on a different blog that, “no one was ever persuaded that slavery was inhumane without a conversation that started with a lot of profanity.”   I stole the point from Jonathan Rauch, who argues (as a homosexual Jew pleased with the outcome of debates over homosexuality and Jewry) that bias and bigotry are not a hindrance but the foundation of enlightening discussion.   Gay kisses on church steps carried as much semiotic significance in the liberation of homosexuals (if not more) than did smoking-coat debates about sexual history.

Offending people is a skill and an important one.

Our most cherished beliefs are precognitive.  They go unaddressed and unannounced because we are already on the same page as our friends.  These priors live in the nerve complex in the gut and spinal cord.  Attacking them makes us feel sick to our stomachs. They arouse anger and stumbling-over-our-words disbelief.  We are often at a loss to justify or articulate these deepest beliefs.  That is precisely why we must offend one another into justifying and articulating them.  We cannot achieve an intelligent and empathetic society without stomping on nerves.  We need to be badgered and insulted and zinged into accounting for ourselves.  From insult there results understanding.

That means welcoming profanity and offense—in all of its glorious and mischievous fuckery—into polite society.

Questions remain here.  How much fuckery is optimal?  Relentless fuckery does in fact produce a screaming match or ultimately a fist fight.  How much empathic listening in the mode of National Public Radio’s Terry Gross or your high-school guidance counselor is necessary to thin the salt in the intellectual soup?  Can we effectively toggle between being aggressive and charitable, between being insulting and polite?  These are questions worth arguing over, aggressively.  A world of, “dignified sweet talk or shut up,” is both impossible to achieve and anyway undesirable for people who are interested in empathy and learning.

A Game of You

I love JRPGs. I was one of those kids who felt it almost a matter of duty to wander around the area maps, fighting minor enemies in order to grind out experience points and level up.

In such games, you often get money when you defeat an enemy. You can use that money to buy armor for defense, or weapons for offense.

Say you are playing such a game and decide to save up all your money to buy the most powerful weapon in the game, which is only possible if you don’t buy any armor. You wager that you’ll be able to defeat the last boss faster than he will be able to exploit your weak defense.

Say things don’t play out that way, but instead you are swiftly defeated.

This happened because there is more to the game than your intentions or even your choices. The course of events is determined by the game as a whole, which includes but is much larger than your part of it.

Art and rhetoric are both fields of play. To create a work of art is to invite spectators into a meaning-game.

Jacques-Louis David invited us to see Napoleon as a romantic and heroic figure. The French, in general, continue to play the game more or less according to the rules set by that artist. These games have become a central part in how the meaning of Napoleon’s life and reign are understood.

Jacques-Louis David, Napoleon Crossing the Alps
Jacques-Louis David, Napoleon Crossing the Alps

But the artist is not an absolute monarch of the game. His role is more like the JRPG player than the JRPG designer. Many kings have commissioned flattering portrayals that spectators have played against the intention of the artist or patron. When the aggrandizing was so far removed from their understanding of the subject matter, it only deepened or even created the image of a delusional and self-obsessed man where the image of a great man was intended.

We see this prominently in the never ending public struggle of American political rhetoric-games. A rhetorical flourish intended to invite a sympathetic response is ruthlessly played against its intentions by enemies. Thus Jeb Bush’s request to “please clap,” was intended to be played as self-effacing humor, but ended up being played in the larger narrative of patheticness that more successfully characterized his public image and his campaign.

Unlike a JRPG, these are not games you can opt out of. If you do not attend to the meaning-games of the subjects that matter to you, such as your own life, someone will.

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The Emperor is No Novelist

Featured image is a meaningless aesthetic experience put down on paper by Karlheinz Stockhausen.

The emperor was sitting in his study one day, when he felt the stirring of the unconscious impulse of genius. Wasting no time, he dipped his quill in ink and moved it across the page, moving to a new page when the moment felt right. In short order, he had a stack of papers, filled with the work of his genius.

He called in his top adviser. “What do you make of this?” he asked, gesturing to the papers. His adviser looked through a few of the papers.

“Sir?” He replied, uncertain of what was expected of him.

“I have just completed this novel,” the emperor prompted, “I was wondering if I could get your honest opinion.”

The very last thing the adviser ever wanted to give was his honest opinion, least of all at that moment. “I’m not sure I understand…perhaps you could provide some more context?”

“Context!” The emperor snorted, “Of course you don’t have enough of that to share in my experience of creation. Would you like to go back and enter my mind, at the moment it occurred? Would you like to go through my life story as a whole, so that you can see how it might have resulted in such inspiration? But of course that is impossible.”


“But fear not! Your aesthetic experience need not depend on my unconscious creative process whatsoever! Simply gaze at the pages. Do you not feel their beauty?”

“Ah…yes. Yes, I think I see now. Yes, they are truly moving, sir.”

“You’re not just saying so?”

“Have you ever known me to engage in empty flattery, your majesty?”

The emperor showed more and more people his work, and found that their reactions were similar. So, encouraged, he set up an exhibit, in which all of the individuals were displayed encased in glass.

Many came from all over the land the indulge in the aesthetic experience of the emperor’s work.

The exhibit was set up in the throne room, so the emperor could enjoy the sight of his subjects experiencing his work.

One day, he was pleased to see a mother had brought her child. The boy could not have been more than seven or eight years old.

“What is this?” He asked his mother.

“It’s the emperor’s book,” she explained. The boy stared at one particular page for a very long time. The emperor’s heart swelled with pride at the sight of a child working so hard to appreciate his creation.

“No it isn’t,” the boy finally said.

“What’s that?” his mother stammered, casting a nervous glance towards the emperor.

“It isn’t a book at all,” he said, “it’s just scribbles.” Silence filled the room. Everyone was half-staring, half-attempting to appear nonchalant.

“I told you it was a book, and it’s a book,” his mother whispered sternly.

“But there aren’t any words at all! You can’t read it!” he shouted.

“Be. Quiet!” she hissed. She looked up and saw the emperor staring down at them. “I apologize for his rudeness, your majesty,” she stammered, “perhaps he is simply too young to appreciate anything more demanding than vulgar storytelling.”

“Yes…perhaps so,” the emperor replied quietly. “That must be it,” he said to himself, long after everyone had left, and he was alone.

Virtue in the Epoch of the Hypocrite

Keep your cotton, ladies and gentlemen. For my money, Linum usitatissimum is the finest gift Mother Nature has offered humanity, narrowly edging out hemp for the most useful non-cereal angiosperm ever cultivated. While hemp gives us seed oil, plastics, paper, and textiles, its traditional use is cordage. Nothing on earth surpasses the cost performance of a length of sturdy hemp rope when your business is stretching a neck. Continue reading “Virtue in the Epoch of the Hypocrite”

Asymmetrical Morality

Most people already know a few basic facts about radiation. They know, for example, that radiation can be passed through a human body to produce a photographic print that allows physicians to observe the presence of internal injury. They know that nuclear devices, for war or for peace, produce dangerous quantities of radiation. They know that our planet’s own sun emits radiation and that the earth shields us from the worst of it with its natural magnetic field. They know that a sufficient dose of radiation can be harmful, producing burns in the short term, cancer or other genetic mutations over time. Sunburns are your skin’s way of telling you to reduce your exposure to harmful solar radiation. Fewer people know that entire electromagnetic spectrum, from soup to nuts, is radiation. My suspicion is that sometime during the atomic era of the 1950s, American media figures muttered conflations around the stem of a tightly-clenched pipe. Perhaps adding “ionizing” to modify “radiation” for the sort found in the heart of Eisenhower-era nuclear devices was too much of a mouthful for prime-time television. Perhaps the distinction was unimportant when weighed against the urgency of the blossoming arms race. Whatever the case, the notion of high-energy radiation was sufficiently impenetrable that by the time it became a plot device for dimestore fiction, it ended up transforming mild-mannered research physicists into raging emerald smash-monsters. For those rare few who know the difference between ionizing and non-ionizing radiation, fewer still know that the line dividing them is neither bright nor clear. To understand why, please bear with me as I digress a bit into a little introductory nuclear physics. Continue reading “Asymmetrical Morality”

Particular Problems

I have lately been reading about thinkers who attempt to elevate the particular over the general. But I have trouble even wrapping my head around the idea.

Is it possible to speak of something being particular without implying a relationship to generality? “Particular” is a general term referring to the non-general.

A particular is an individual item in a class—so there can be no particular without classes. If there are classes that only have one item total, then can they meaningfully be spoken of as classes?

To think of the properties of a particular is to think in terms of properties that could apply to others—that is, properties are general concepts, intrinsically.

To say, as Wittgenstein does, that resemblances within a class are family resemblances, is to presuppose the general concept of “family resemblances.”

This is not intended as a critique of Wittgenstein. On the contrary: it is simply a confession that I do not understand the relationship between generals and particulars.

A World of Significance

Featured Image is Am Fronleichnamsmorgen, by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller

No one is born an empiricist or a rationalist.

A newborn does not construct reality from first premises or observe a neutral array of objects which must be interpreted. A baby is born into a set of natural relations, especially with the parents and especially with the mother.

Babies don’t have language pressed on them; they instinctively seek it out. Once they find it, they begin soaking it up like a sponge.

Everyone, whether an infant, a child, a teenager, an adult, or the elderly, are thrown into a situation full of significance. Life resembles a game in which both the rules and the purpose are hinted at but never revealed. We encounter most objects in their perceived relation to the game of life. The scissors in our desk in elementary school are not just some meaningless matter; its shape and its location in our desk already hint that it has some specific purpose.

The reason that the rules and purpose of the game are never completely revealed is that they are influenced—I hesitate to go as far as to say “determined”—by the playing of the game itself.

A lot of the game is mere doing—actually using the scissors to cut paper, going to school, sitting at your desk. But a great deal of the game is telling, or saying, or listening—which of course is a kind of doing, but a very special kind.

A community is sustained by a conjective web of significances, including practices understood largely inarticulately, and narratives that give articulated (as well as implied) purposiveness to the world around us.

This web can be usefully thought of in terms of network clusters, rather than something uniform and discrete.

Taken from CV Harquail
Taken from CV Harquail

We play sub-games with subsets of the community which nevertheless have implications for the larger game of the community at large.

Sub-games and sub-communities are sources of experimentation with new ideas, rules, and practices. They are therefore the sources of both creativity and disorder for the community at large.

The moves we make can have very different significance depending on which game they’re interpreted as being a part of. A constructive move in a sub-game could be a destructive or counterproductive move if interpreted as a part of the larger game, or a different sub-game. The reverse is also possible.

The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority can be seen as arguing that our current overall situation pushes us to make moves that are considered constructive within our sub-games but are destructive in the larger game. But our current media environment has largely dissolved the walls between such games, so that they are carrying on as before but the moves can no longer be made within isolated sub-games. We tend to view this as good when the moves made by our ideological enemies in previously obscured sub-games are now observable to us, and vulnerable to attack. But the cumulative effect of everyone pursuing such a strategy is negation and nihilism.

Let’s hope that we’re able to adapt the game of life to our new information environment so that such a result is no longer fore-ordained.


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Religious Recursion

It does annoy me, on occasion, before I catch myself and remember that the whole Christian project is a project of open futility–

About that: the Second Sunday of Easter is always Doubting Thomas Sunday, so doubt is much on my mind, being a fervent believer, liturgically speaking, meditating on the elements of my faith, which is something else, at my age, having lived through the emergence of a culture which was mostly Christian into one which is mostly not, especially up here in Western New York and the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario. Doubt, right? It’s essential to the Faith.

They were upstairs, behind locked doors, afraid, those Eleven who were with him from the very beginning, and they all saw him die. Thomas, called “The Twin,” puffs his chest out, saying, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”

Well, Thomas, can’t you do that to a corpse?

Strange things.

I don’t understand the intellectual hostility to Christianity, especially when people I consider friends publicly wish there were fewer of me, less of my influence in life and culture. Why? Because there are bad Christians? And the half-baked dismissal of the fervent, you know, glib high school angry atheist stuff, always as an aside, never as a grown-up inquiry into this two thousand year old faith with a billion adherents, and growing (despite Europe and North America), which has roots in a strange Ancient Near Eastern blood cult another two thousand years hence.

The Christian project is a project of open futility, though, and I have to remind myself of that.

Nevertheless, I do take a little pleasure in some of the materialist investigations into the Faith, first transforming Christianity into a “religion,” which is a neat intellectual move, making the Faith, which dominates the life and culture of Western Civilization, indistinguishable from shamanistic druidic magicka, only distinguishing by time elapsed. When the materialists talk about ritual, ignoring my own call for distinctions within these hallowed halls

Remember, the Christian Faith is in defiance of ritual and religion. When Christianity develops rituals, it’s always a threat to itself.

This behavior of the materialists, all of them together, namely, wishing there were fewer of me, reducing my beliefs into a primordial pool of beliefs, and talking about my rites and rituals without making proper distinctions, creates in me a sense that a kind of recursion is going on:

The materialist sees the Christian, and comments. The Christian sees the materialist commenting, and comments. The materialist sees the Christian commenting on the comment, and so forth. To me, it’s like one of those wonderfully absurd Monty Python sketches:

Scene: Lower middle-class apartment, evening, husband sitting in comfortable chair reading The Times, wife making efforts at wifely cleaning. Two men appear in the window, dressed in safari clothing, writing in notebooks.

Wife: Herman, they’re watching us again!

Herman: Who are, Margret?

Margret: The Materialists.

Herman: Oh, that’s all right, dear, they’re just researching.

Margret: Researching?

Herman: That’s right, Margret; they’ve come from a long way away just to learn about our behavior in the wild instead of in captivity.

Laugh track

Margret: Well, I don’t like it, not one bit. (closes curtains. The materialist safari move to the other window)

Laugh track

Margret: They won’t go away, Herman!

Herman: Of course not, dear, they’re Materialists.

Laugh track

Herman: Ask them what they want, and maybe they’ll go away.

Margret: What do you want?

Materialists don’t answer. Whisper to each other, writing in notebooks.

Margret: They don’t think we can see them.

Laugh track

Herman: Do what?

Margret: They don’t think we can see them.

Herman: Well, what are they talking about?

Margret: Normativity.

Herman: Normativity? Did you hand them a copy of Proverbs?

Margret: I told you, they don’t think we can see them.

And so forth. The laugh track is to my advantage, but you, O Materialist, have the last laugh, the true laugh.

The whole project of the Christian Faith is a project of open futility, and it is actually encoded in the Faith. Saint Paul–excuse me–the Apostle Paul, after fifteen chapters on the wisdom of God putting to shame the wisdom of the world (that would be you materialists) finishes his exposition by saying in his first letter to the Corinthian Christians, “If there is no resurrection of the body, then we are to be pitied more than all men. Send money.”

So, since miracles = impossible (cf. G.E. Lessing), and since the resurrection of the body = a miracle, then, it follows, therefore there is no God.

The materialist has the advantage in an ever-improving society and ever-progressing technology as a result of Science, material proof. The only way for me to prove my faith is for me to become a corpse.

They called Thomas “The Twin” for a reason, you know.

Image borrowed from http://menfash.us/styling-tips/am-i-really-looking-good/