Friday, March 14, 2014

What's Your Bene/Male Ratio?

Most of us were brought up not to "curse." When I was growing up, that cover a whole range of speech: scatology and other biological rudeness, sexual obscenity, blasphemy, and damning were included. My prim daughter has added the word "suck," when used as a term of disparagement ("this game sucks").

Today, of course, there's all kinds of abuses against polite language virtually everywhere. My family has been watching Jesus of Nazareth on DVD this Lent, and the 14-year-old cynic in me finds it hard not to parody this well-produced and lavish mini-series at crucial point, to turn small scenes into SNL-like sketches before my mind's eye. One of these has Joseph repeatedly injuring himself while doing his carpenter thing -- hitting his thumb with his mallet -- and loudly taking his Son's name in vain, along with the usual scatological and sexual references that some of us are prone to when in physical pain.

But maybe we look at this backwards. Instead obsessing about what we're doing too much of, perhaps there's something we're doing too little of. What's the opposite of a curse? A curse is a "malediction," literally from the Latin roots for "bad speech." "Good speech" would be "benediction" -- blessing. How much time do we spend in benediction, in blessing, in calling down the good on people that we meet, even things that we encounter? Mindfulness about more casual benedictions in everyday life seems like a decent part of my Lenten journey.

And I say, "God bless it!"

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Adventures in Hegel -- The Phenomenology

I've been trying to come to terms with Hegel, on and off, for over 20 years. The motivation is plain: if one tries reading the existentialists, phenomenologists, or postmoderns of the 20th century, for example, one can't take a step without huge reference and debts to him. Forays into Sartre, Heidegger, Husserl, and Derrida inevitably lead back to Hegel, either as a source or as an intellectual antagonist.

For starters, Hegel is not:
  1. a simple-minded progressive who blindly asserts an "end of history."
  2. the originator of "thesis plus antithesis yields synthesis." That formulation comes from Fichte.
  3. Easily summarized. Even with extensive reading, it's a mine field to attempt to gloss this deep and obscure thinker.
Hegel is doing something different than the epistemologists of the Enlightenment were doing (one can picture a line of thought starting with Descartes in the mid-1600's and reaching its apogee with Kant in the late 1700's). The common thread there was to treat the mind, the spirit, like another object for consideration, in implicit opposition to the subject. These philosophers, in broad outline, followed the same program: start from a theory, or system, of how the mind works, and from that we'll figure out what we can truly know. Call it optimistic (or naïve) epistemology.

Hegel stands this mode of philosophy on its head. He claims not to be theorizing, but merely observing the contents of various modes of consciousness. His intent is to ask, "what does each mode of thinking do, from the inside? What is the content of this mode of thought -- how does one experience this mode of thought?" His conceit is that each mode of thought, from within, generates its own sense of incompleteness and frustration; each reveals itself to be inadequate. Later, another mode of thought appears on the scene and reveals itself to be the resolution to the failure of a prior mode of thought.

Along the way, we encounter a range of smaller discourses. One of the most famous is the quest for each self's recognition and the moments of that quest's development: the battle to the death, the relationship of lordship and bondage, and the self-refutation that each of those moments gives rise to.

So what's the gist of this? The gist is . . . that you can't be in a hurry to get the gist. Trying to sum up what it means as a whole is extremely difficult. Hegel in particular points out this difficulty, present for all writers. If one reads only to have a convenient one-line bromide to summarize a writer's life, what one is doing is not reading so much as inoculating one's mind against the possibility of encountering new ideas.

In addition to reading the Phenomenology, secondary reading is also useful here. Published 6 years ago, Peter Kalkavage's Logic of Desire would have been a great help to me 20 years ago. Kalkavage uses this idea as his frame: the Phenomenology can be thought of as biography, as a story of development, a bildungsroman, that it endeavors to give an account of how mind comes to know itself. I heartily recommend it to anyone who wants to begin to understand something of this seminal thinker.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

This Could Be the Start of Something Big

This video clip induced a visceral longing for an alternate universe in which Chuck Berry and Elvis never happened -- it may be the first time I've experienced that. Steve Allen used this as his theme song. He wrote it (Steve was a real Renaissance Man), and it's an under-appreciated gem.

Sure, it's only a paper moon, but I love the whole clubby "don't you want to be in Hollywood and New York, too?" feeling. And while it should seem elitist, it doesn't off that way (and didn't at the time). They sing about it in a way that Sardi's and Venice Beach could just as easily be Howard Johnson's and Coney Island. It's not elitist, it's aspirational.

And what a great tracking shot. Special guest appearance near the end.

R.I.P. Eydie Gormé, who died this August. H/T, Powerline Blog.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Review: Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery

Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery
Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery by Eric Metaxas

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The key word in the subtitle is "heroic." Eric Metaxas does a wonderful job of conveying the faith and idealism of William Wilberforce. This biography is extremely readable, and most moving: a tribute to a man who combines faith and reason, activism and prudence, rhetoric and ethics. Metaxas skillfully shows the linkages between the two guiding lights of Wilberforce: the "reformation of manners," a kind of moral and spiritual awakening, and abolition.

One striking feature of this story is how secularized and worldly the Church of England had become in the late 1700's. Wilberforce is an example of a radical movement of deep faith, typified by the founders of Methodism and the Quakers, that took commitment to Christ seriously. These movements revitalized Christian practice in England and called it to judge the world by the mind of Christ.

One fascinating chapter focuses on Wilberforce's struggle to allow Christian evangelism in India. Commercial interests, such as the British East India Company, were dead set against allowing missionaries to work in India, because it would restrict the particular advantages that British men of means enjoyed there, such as the keeping of retinues of mistresses who were happy to give sexual favors to them in return for, as one gentleman put it, "a little rice and let[ting] them run about." Allowing quaint "customs" such as female infanticide and the suttee were a small price for the East India Company in return for the gains it saw from an endless source of cheap labor. Given this, the Company predictably found itself protecting these practices, often cynically portraying itself as broad-minded and multi-cultural (as opposed to uncaring).

Wilberforce's story deserves to be more well-known, and Metaxas' book is an excellent beginning of this work.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it . . .

. . . and those who cannot remember where they left their keys are condemned to search for them.

There's been a renaissance in the last few decades in memory. We human beings have been externalizing our memories to an increasing extent for centuries. Every advance in media -- handwriting, cartography, movable type and printing, phonograph, typewriter, film, audiotape, word processing, videotape, Web, mobile, etc. -- has resulted in the loss of human memory abilities. We live, more or less, in a kind of perpetual amnesia. To give a simple example, folks used to have to know many phone numbers -- now they're all on our phones, along with photos of places we were to busy photographing to actually remember, experiences we were to busy recording to actually have. Many of us don't even know our physical surroundings as we commute to work. To go further back, poems like the Iliad and the Odyssey were largely composed so that singers and bards could keep them in memory and perform them in public without working from written scripts which were virtually impossible to produce.

Frances Yates of the University of London and Mary Carruthers at NYU did groundbreaking research into the forgotten history of memory. In both the classical and medieval eras, a great deal was known about memory as an art, as a body of techniques. Several Greeks and Romans wrote of these techniques, which were well known in antiquity and considered to be part of the art of rhetoric, useful for bards, writers, and statesmen alike. Many medieval scholars further refined these ideas, so there exist a whole literature of memory improvement that is being rediscovered today.

The key for these arts is the Method of Loci. All valid arts and techniques rely upon nature inasmuch as they perfect and modify nature to serve human ends, and the art of memory is no different. It relies on natural qualities of the mind: that, by our nature, we tend to have a natural memory for images, odors, emotions, the absurd, the obscene, the horrific, that we can create these either from perception or from imagination, that we can mentally situate an image in any imagined or perceived location, and thus we can commit anything to memory, e.g., a list of all the Presidents, 50 topics for a planned public speech, an epic poem, etc., by using a set of techniques that translate what we're committing to memory into vivid images. These are stored in imagined locations (loci) and can be easily recalled by walking through that memory palace and "seeing" everything that is there. The very word "topic" is from the Greek word topos, which means "place."

The key to memory always is in the original experience, not in the recall. That is, 99 percent of the work is done when forming the memory. The person has to pay close attention to the things being memorized initially. During recall, there's not much that can be done to improve memory.

Joshua Foer's Moonwalking With Einstein highlights the extreme of memory work, a competition that is, in some weird ways, similar to a marathon, or a competitive eating meet, or a chess match. Contestants try to push the art further and further, doing things like memorizing a randomly shuffled deck of cards in under 30 seconds, or a long poem composed for the occasion in a limited amount of time. The book is filled with wonderful digressions on neuroscience, culture, and history.

Plato wrote that all knowledge was recollection (anamnesis). Both in antiquity and early modernity there was a great emphasis on memory as key to real understanding, in literature and education more broadly. Instead of originality, the goal was to comprehend and recollect what had already been known and to let it form the character and the mind. Thus, someone like Thomas Aquinas committed reams of philosophy to memory. Because manuscripts were rare, so he could not simply pull out of a library (much less the Internet) everything that Averroes had written on any given topic. He had to fully internalize whatever he cited. The way people read grew around this. One inhabited a book, lived it, visualized it, consumed it. ("Web Surfing" and "Channel Surfing," on the other hand, are of more recent vintage.)

We're living in a period of a kind of amnesia, of cultural ignorance. A cubicle space for a modern workplace is usually designed so as to be completely reproducible, repetitive, nondescript. It's an architecture that by its nature induces amnesia. I've been working on a bunch of memory projects, and going through some books on technique. (I just finished all the popes, and they go and lay another one on me!) I'm more interested in being able to use this in daily life than in competition, but it's fun and a workout for the imagination.

Is memory work something conservative should be concerned with? Should we commit the works of Jefferson and Madison (or our leftist interlocutors, e.g., Marx and Keynes) to memory, so as to better able to defend ourselves and anticipate arguments?

And are you constantly trying to remember where you left your keys? (I am.)

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Review: Memorize The Faith! (And Most Anything Else): Using The Methods Of The Great Catholic Medieval Memory Masters

Memorize The Faith! (And Most Anything Else): Using The Methods Of The Great Catholic Medieval Memory Masters
Memorize The Faith! (And Most Anything Else): Using The Methods Of The Great Catholic Medieval Memory Masters by Kevin Vost

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Nice, very specific book on mnemotechnics and Catholic religious education. Kevin Vost presents the art of memory in a catechetical context. The art of memory consists not of "drill-and-kill" rote repetition, but rather, of techniques of lively creativity and vivid imagination. For anyone interested in opening his mind and allowing it to reflect on the ideas, beliefs, experiences, and reflections of those who came before us, as well as those who are with us, holding the world and making it vivid in our mind's eye, this is book is a good resource.

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Review: Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wonderful read. Foer's book is utterly charming. The frame of this book is participatory journalism, the story of how Foer went from observer of the U.S.A. Memory Championship to winner within the space of one year. Inside this frame, Foer engages questions of cultural memory, neuroscience, literary history and pre-history, self-improvement hucksterism, and trends in education, with a cast of characters that includes savants, frauds, mental athletes, Cicero, medieval scholars, Giordano Bruno, Mark Twain, and ESPN. It's a very brisk read, and raises fascinating questions.

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Monday, January 14, 2013

Review: The Thomas Sowell Reader

The Thomas Sowell Reader
The Thomas Sowell Reader by Thomas Sowell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Good read. A lot of short pieces on social issues politics, economics, race, education, along with personal reflections, as well as a couple of humor pieces. Sowell is extremely blunt but not inflammatory. A free market economist, he's intent at identifying incentives and looking at physical factors. His piece on the effect of geography on regional economies is fascinating, reminiscent of Jared Diamond. In this collection, I prefer the longer pieces to the shorter magazine articles. His personal stories about growing up in North Carolina and Harlem in the 30's and 40's are also excellent. I recommend this to anyone who wants to see the positions of conservatives and classical liberals laid out without any rancor. Sowell is well worth many readings.

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Review: The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version

The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version
The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version by Anonymous

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Revised Standard Version is an excellent translation. It combines the classic structures of the King James Version, phrases and elements that have become part of the fabric of our lives and history, with a modern clarity, and removes archaisms. I set out to read through it in one year, and it's not far off to say that it's been life-changing for me. A small example -- until going through it in its totality, I didn't really have a feeling for the prophetic voice. What's more, it's kind of addicting. I've made scripture a habit now, and this was a solid edition to start with.

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