Saturday, June 19, 2004

The Descending Limb of the Parabola

Feminism, democracy, and rationality have had a remarkable run over the last 200 years, but it remains to be seen if any of these rockets has achieved escape velocity from the gravitational pull of human nature. The historical and anthropological record suggests that males normally dominate women, the thugs normally intimidate peaceable people, and the population at large finds crazy religious ideas irresistible. Under the circumstances, I’m thankful and a little surprised that my neighbors haven’t gotten around to murdering me in my bed. Of course it may be that the special conditions of a complicated, high technology civilization really do automatically promote the persistence of enlightenment, at least in the long run. Or maybe they don’t. Or maybe, though the suggestion is rather strenuous, the liberal option remains open if and only if people keep it open by an exercise of their collective will.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

From Minerva to Mars

Conservatives traditionally claimed they just were defending themselves against the advance of various terrible radicals but above all against anybody who proposed to redistribute wealth. That stance required them to represent property rights as sacred and natural, a dubious proposition from either a philosophical or a historical point of view, but one that at least didn’t justify the acquisition of additional wealth by force and fraud in the present day. Modern conservatives are more ambitious. They are as eager to redistribute wealth as any socialist regime. In the Code Napoleon, the first heading under the rubric of Ways to Acquire Wealth was marriage. In the current code of American politics, it’s buying influence. The Republican Party, far better at this sort of thing than the Democrats, has become a powerful engine of wealth creation, but only for its supporters. A new and vigorous round of primitive accumulation is underway here and around the world.

Previously, people used to assume that corruption is only a major problem in the Third World countries or southern states in which a significant proportion of pubic wealth is siphoned into private pockets. Corruption in most of the United States, despite some impressive specific cases, seemed at most to have a moral significance, that is, it was deplorable but also not very important from a macroeconomic perspective. Small time opportunists, like camp followers, might latch onto a successful politician to make their thousands or millions; but the net effect of all the chiseling was negligible, a kind of friction. In the last 30 years, this assumption has been proven wrong. The active and partisan intervention of government has made it possible for the already wealthy to increase their share of wealth at the cost of the overall prosperity and health of the population. And the rich have grown accustomed to this fast-food feast. Which is also why so much money continues to pour into Bush’s coffers even though it is as apparent to Big Money as to everybody else that the President is utterly incompetent and exceedingly dangerous. He’s still the best profit play around; and if things go to Hell in the U.S., they can always move. They already have an office in Bermuda.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Low Cal Snacks


The movie in a capsule: a Greek Tragedy that ends with the murder of the chorus.

A Poem Found in a Scholarly Article about the Renaissance Philosopher Pico della Mirandola:

"Can the right-thinking scourge of the stargazers have been
A wooly-brained wizard himself?"

Written On a Stray Piece of Paper I Found Under the Bed:

Long acquaintance hath at last made the world unfamiliar to me.

Useful Quotation for all Occasions:

“The sun will have no spectators if it is not in eclipse.” – Olaus Magnus, Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus

The Fate of Holy Writ:

As Moses could have told Marx, an author who is not allowed to be wrong will end up not being read, no matter how often he’s quoted.

An Explanation:

The innumerable vampires and demons of Sunnyvale
The invincible Kung-Fu of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan
Because there are no Gods or spirits at all
Because the force of a single man is merely contemptible.

Cheer Up:

In view of the dullness we daily observe
Even you are a God if they grade on the curve.

The Lure:

Grand theories are like big tits, a bait and switch operation. Seeking pleasure, we procreate. Seeking enlightenment, we conduct empirical research.

Title in Search of an Essay:

Much Wretched Queen Adieu About Nothing

Monday, June 14, 2004

We Were Just Ordering Followers

The administration is blaming 19-year old soldiers for implicating the administration in war crimes. “None of this would have happened if the soldiers had demonstrated more moral strength and disobeyed our clearly illegal orders.” In a separate statement, a Whitehouse spokesman reassured the American public, “We’re doing everything we can to ensure that you won’t hear another word about the abuse of prisoners.”
Edification with Real Edifices

Part of the charm of early medieval literature is the contrast between its sophistication, sometimes amounting to preciosity, and the barbarity of its environment. While assorted Magyars, Vikings, and Moors prowled around the walls of the monastery, the monks wrote charming love letters in Latin verse to their (Platonic) girl friends in the adjoining nunnery or elaborated complicated allegorical interpretations of the Song of Songs. In a time of universal violence, poverty, and disorder, when the thugs had just begun their ambiguous transformation into knights, you might think that a coarse and masculine style would rule. In the vernacular and outside the cloister, it did. In Latin and inside, however, the classic models emulated by the intellectuals were the self-consciously literary works of Virgil and Ovid. I find it piquant that an Alexandrian poetics flourished in the midst of chaos and ruin, rather as if the Institute of Advanced Studies were located in downtown Trenton instead of Princeton, Andrew Sullivan may be an evolved Catholic, but stylistically he's no Liudprand of Cremona.

I was brought back to that world by reading the Craft of Thought, the most recent work of the medievalist Mary Carruthers. We’re supposedly living in an era in which scholarship has been debased by fashion, but authors like Carruthers refute that libel, which, truth told, is mostly supported by the very dubious practice of quoting assistant professors at random. Now it is perfectly true that very few people are in a position to enjoy the artistry as well as the erudition of somebody like Carruthers—nobody believes me that philological books can be absurdly exciting. Unfortunately, her theme, the practice of meditative thought in the Christian West before 1200 or so, sounds hopelessly recherch√© unless you understand how it fits in with the art of memory in the premodern world. If you aren’t into the topic, you’d be advised to read the works of Frances Yates instead of Carruthers, though I think Carruthers understand many issues better than Yates.

Both the moderns and the medievals understand thought as an activity, but whereas we credit the imagination as the active agent responsible for the invention of ideas, people formerly thought of invention as belonging to memory, a dynamic organization and reorganization of the contents of the mind or, more generally, received culture. The Medievals had recourse to traditional rhetorical techniques to order their thoughts, an art of memory that was far more than a set of parlor tricks to memorize speeches. The Art of Memory involved the association of particular ideas with places in a familiar context, most often an architectural setting such as a public building like a courthouse or church but sometimes an imagined theater or even the Zodiac. By mentally traversing the various places in one these sites, one could recall the topics of a speech or order the elements of a literary composition, or, in a religious context, meditate on the elements of faith—think of the Stations of the Cross. The vital point, which Carruthers does seem to have understood better than Yates, is the benefit in this internal ritual arises from the process than its results. It is getting organized, not being organized that energizes and illuminates the mind, which is also why, if you don’t mind an aside by an old textbook editor, modern pedagogy with its boxes, chapter summaries, and forty-two levels of emphasis is so self defeating.

In her Craft of Thought, as in her earlier Book of Memory, Carruthers deals with the very general anthropological question of how individuals and cultures can make sense out of the world, granted that the structuration provided by the categories of natural languages doesn’t provide a sufficient grid to underlie either sociability or the acquisition of empirical and theoretical knowledge. In this respect, her work is similar to the structural anthropology of Levi-Strauss, which focuses on the cognitive role of myth and other cultural artifacts—my use of the word “grid” in the previous sentence is actually a microplagiarism from the Frenchman’s seminal book the Savage Mind. The monks wove their web of thought and practice out of the Psalms, church architecture, classical rhetoric, and a few other elements they found good to think just as Levi-Strauss’ Amazonian natives articulated their world by relating everything to the natural kinds of animals and plants and European modernism made overall sense of things by reference to a history rectified through “falsified outlines” (another microplagiarism).