A True Friend Helps You Move A Body

A true friend not only helps you move your old dormitory couch out of the basement man-cave because your wife complained about the smell even though you don’t smell anything amiss–but she does, and you know what it is she’s smelling, and whom–not only does a true friend help you move aromatic furniture, he also helps you move a body. As the bard proclaims: Ne’er is friendship made more sure than ‘neath the docks/ In darkness for the poor deceased creating concrete socks (Now the song is stuck in your head, isn’t it?)

In civil society, we generally wait for the body to assume room temperature, even refrigerator temperature, before we hire men to dig the hole or stoke the furnace. Moreover, we ask for information regarding death: what kind of sickness? What manner of death? Next of kin? On the other hand, when a friend is required in order to perform a burial, we’re no longer in civil society, and the body is still warm. Most importantly, no questions are asked, not even, “Remember that thing we did?” And whenever someone asks, “What ever happened to Johnny Two Shoes?” the answer is along the lines of “He did seem kind of heavy the last time I saw him.” “Yeah, like he had a kind of sinking feeling about him.”

Many are nostalgic for print media, but we haven’t even buried print media yet. Basic questions have yet to be answered: what killed print media? Was it self-inflicted morbid living (lowest common denominator marketing)? Or was it old age (ineluctability of new technology)? Could the cause of death actually have been suicide (shooting its own customer base in the head repeatedly)?

It was this sentence fragment in Clay Shirky’s “Nostalgia and Newspapers” post which aggravated me (I thought the post was otherwise commendable), concerning print media: “…an industry that prides itself on pitiless public scrutiny of politics and industry…” That’s like saying Johnny Two Shoes loved gambling when in fact Johnny Two Shoes loved running a fixed and illegal roulette game in the Miami Beach area. For a while there, before the sudden demise of print media, we all agreed to play the fixed game because it was fun and there was still a chance to come away with something of value. We small government types tacitly acknowledged that print media was in the tank for Big Government types, and we bought the paper just so long as there were boundaries of decorum. But when Drudge Report, a digital media source, broke the news that Newsweek had declined to pursue the Monica Lewinsky story, the general public abandoned the print media casino. That was it. Too many of us had seen too much violence done to truth, virtue, honesty, integrity, etc., to look the other way any longer; our secondary benefits had been tainted by an arrogant culture of liars and power mongers. News media is not supposed to be terribly objective, but neither are they to be so crass in their power influencing.

The Drudge/Lewinsky example might be too fraught as an example (I’m feeling bombastic), but I repeat for emphasis: it wasn’t the Monica Lewinsky story, it was that Newsweek declined to do its job. Thus, the nascent digital media, which could have died in the birth canal, was delivered, and print media was no longer. Digital was a favorable alternative for many reasons, but not ineluctable, and it didn’t have to mean the demise of print; it still doesn’t.

These quick and easy eulogies of print media seem to me to be disposing of a warm body.

 

To Tell or Not To Tell

Reasonable people might say that Shakespeare wrote his Richard II with reference (perhaps allusion) to Elizabeth’s childlessness in her old age. In fact, reasonable historians believe that the play itself was an added inspiration for the revolt of the Earl of Essex, which ended in a rather ugly fashion. The trick, of course, is that reasonable people can disagree most vehemently, and, thereby, keep their heads attached to their necks.

AB is on to something with his corrective post, namely that wisdom bears in telling stories. All stories can be told. All stories are told in context. Contexts change. Contexts can be manipulated. Stories can be manipulated. People can be manipulated.

When you get into the  business of people-manipulating, it helps to have the power to do so with impunity. A wise storyteller uses ambiguity as a defensive weapon, that is, winks and nods encoded in the text, the decoding of which, naturally, becomes the playground for mischievous persons. Shakespeare, as history bears out, endures much foolishness, but as all wise men do, he speaks not, and in not speaking, he asserts power, much power, over the reader, over history, over society, informing our hearts with virtue.

Likewise Homer, and a few others.

Beauty grows on trees

I just recently returned from France to my home in Atlantic Canada. It was my first time in the country, and I was glad to have spent it within the lush, rolling pastures of Normandy, made famous through the artwork of impressionist par excellence, Claude Monet, during his years in Giverny, long before the Allied liberation I was there to commemorate.

Impressionism happens to be one of my favourite genres of art due its resonance with my philosophical appreciation for David Hume. Hume believed that our aesthetic standards, much like our moral ones, derive from inner sentiments that project approbations on our “sensory impressions”.  The snap-shot framing common in impressionism even mirrors Hume’s empiricism, with each short, thick brush stroke as a ray of light, a sense datum within our kaleidoscopic perception.

Tree-in-Flower-near-Vetheuil

Beauty, Hume maintained, does not realize itself by ideas, but by a conformity between the object and our inner sense. As he wrote in the Standards of Taste, “beauty and deformity, more than sweet and bitter, are not qualities in objects, but belong entirely to the sentiment, internal or external; it must be allowed, that there are certain qualities in objects, which are fitted by nature to produce those particular feelings.” That “nature” we know to be biological evolution, which cross cultural surveys suggest has predisposed us to relish, among other things, the sight of an evergreen landscape, presumably for its signal of hydration and plenty.

Beauty, then, really does grow on trees. But how do we reconcile this with Adam’s point in his discussion with David that all art is a conversation which necessarily requires a group with shared concepts and ideas?

The difference lies in the distinction between aesthetics on the one hand and art on the other, a distinction that leads to an abyss of confusion if not addressed head on. The late David Best gives an excellent example of this in his 1985 book, Feeling and Reason in the Arts. Drawing on Wittgenstein’s argument against the possibility of a private language, Best sees art, unlike aesthetics, as a type of language game, whereby “individual creativity depends upon the existence and grasp of a social practice.” A philosopher of rhythm and movement, he gives the following excellent example, which I’ve pulled from this review:

Some years ago I was privileged to attend a performance by Ram Gopal, the great Indian classical dancer, and I was quite captivated by the exhilarating and exquisite quality of his movements. Yet I was unable to appreciate his dance artistically since I could not understand it. For instance, there is a great and varied range of subtle hand gestures in Indian classical dance, each with a quite precise meaning, of which I knew none. It is clear that my appreciation was aesthetic, not artistic.

This formulation isn’t only applicable to humans. If you’re ambitious, try to imagine the wonderful aesthetic sensations honey bees must experience upon receiving the ultraviolet sense impressions of a pollen laden Golden crocus, before returning to the hive, and transmitting said beauty through the artistic medium of the waggle dance.  While the sentiment produced by the flower may be immediate and personal, the dance only works to communicate because each specie of bee has a genetic understanding of their particular waggle dance rules.

Humans have the capacity to learn the rules of a particular art and then bend them, inventing new forms of artistic media and waggle dances all our own. But it is important to bear in mind that the rules would cease to exist without the aesthetics underlying them. Even in Manga, another captivating form for which I (like Indian classical dance was for Best) have no artistic appreciation, the unique and extremely idiosyncratic iconography Adam highlights are all conspicuously exploiting a Pleistocene aesthetic, in the same way cheesecake exploits our adaptive sweet tooth. Namely, Manga hits on the sentimental fondness for cutesy and wide eye child-like facial features that one would expect in a species that protects and invests as heavily in their kin as humans do.

So in some sense David and Adam are both right. Adam is right that art can never be a private affair — it, by its very nature, is a social practice. Yet David wasn’t deluded when he reported experiencing aesthetic delight upon his introduction to anime, because the latter feeds up into the former. For without that shared evolutionary heritage, the conversation could never begin.


I’m Samuel by the way, and am pleased to be joining the Sweet Talk team. You can follow me on twitter @hamandcheese and I run an independent blog called Abstract Minutiae, where I try to bridge the conceptually near and far from using the ideas of Quine and Hayek. I’m also an economics student, commencing my MA in the fall. Cheers.

 

Anime is Sacred, Indoctrination is Profane

720px-Anirage-alternate.svg

My bother David is not pleased with the post I wrote about how we appreciate art.

In my very serious response, I’m going to pretend that he was talking about Anime or Manga rather than art in general.

David doesn’t want to buy into any institutional theory of Anime, because he does not believe that Anime’s value is arbitrary. Moreover, he doesn’t like the idea that partaking in the sublime enjoyment of giant sweatdrops indicating embarrassment requires that he be a member of a group. We must not sully the sacredness of Anime with the profaning influence of group indoctrination.

As far as I’m concerned, Protagoras of Abdera has this all figured out thousands of years ago. In the Platonic dialogue that bears his name, Protagoras argues that people spend their whole lives teaching one another right and wrong. He said that if learning to play the flute was the same as learning right and wrong, we would all be prolific flute players, though there would still be variation in talent. Perhaps there would be variation in taste as well—the dialogue does not imply that he thought so.

My question to David is: how did he even discover Anime in the first place? It’s a very strange thing, with a whole iconography of facial expressions and reactions that have nothing to do with how people look or react to things. The answer is that you get introduced to Anime—directly or indirectly—by people. The fact that other people value it and talk about it makes you aware of its existence at all. Part of the joy of watching it is being able to talk to other people about it.

At this point I hear David saying: “Wait a minute. Say Anime just happened to be on the TV when I was a kid and no one actively introduced me to it. Say I never talk to anyone about it ever, I just cherish my private enjoyment of it.”

But you cannot escape community by this means, because the creators are part of a community by necessity! Anime does not spring up in a vacuum.  Artists and writers and voice actors and producers and directors all practice a craft which they learned from other people—either directly through instruction or indirectly through imitation—and by practicing that craft with other people playing the other essential roles. The devoted Anime fan sees every mech series as standing on the shoulders of Mobile Suit Gundam and other predecessors; the devoted fan sees how creators have learned from one another while also trying to do things their own way. They see the conversation.

Anime is a conversation, and conversations by definition require a group of people conversing.

Often denigration of the form is tied to denigration of the people. Anime fans have been denigrated as some version of “abnormal, insane people” for as long as people have watched Anime. That is because Anime is tied to the community of people watching and creating it; it just is.

I cannot help but see David’s attempt to demarcate Anime’s intrinsic value from merely arbirarily valued anime in the context of modern philosophers of science’s attempts to demarcate Science and Truth from mere truths, something Deirdre McCloskey has expended a great deal of energy arguing against. We humans do not experience anything meaningful—in terms of knowledge or aesthetics—without conceptual schemes, and conceptual schemes are built socially. They just are.

Anime doesn’t grow on trees.