30 December 2009

Found Meaning

Filed under: Ktismata, Reflections — ktismatics @ 2:37 pm

Seven books sit together on a shelf near the chair I’m sitting in. I’m going to flip to a random page in each of them and type the seventh sentence on that page. Assembling those seven sentences, I will construct a meaning for my 201o. And so it begins…

Yet in such daydreams as these the past is very old indeed.

And it looked angry.

I think I have shown that all the propositional attitudes require a background of beliefs, so I shall concentrate on conditions for belief.

“Is that not what it means to know Me?” declares the Lord.

However, it is not possible to describe all the relations that may emerge in this way without some guide-lines.

Thus he is given almost equal status to Peter, who sits in a similar position to the right of Christ, and they are distinguished from the other disciples in being accompanied by two female figures, one representing the church of the Jews and the other the church of the Heathen, offering wreaths to Christ.

These are: intention-reading and cultural learning, which account for how children learn linguistic symbols in the first place; schematization and analogy, which account for how children create abstract syntactic constructions out of the concrete pieces of language they have heard; entrenchment and competition, which account for how children constrain their abstractions to those that are conventional in their linguistic community; and functionally based distributional analysis, which accounts for how children form paradigmatic categories of various kinds of linguistic constituents.

I have to say that I like these sentences. I’m sure I could conjure up some way in which the seven of them, extracted from their original contexts, collectively produce a meaningful trajectory propelling me into the new year. Instead I think I’ll take them up one by one, in context, and write what comes to mind about them as separate posts.

26 December 2009

White Christmas Revisited

Filed under: Fiction, Movies — ktismatics @ 11:21 am

On Christmas Eve Anne and I watched White Christmas for the first time in who knows how long. I wrote about this movie toward the end of my second novel. For me it’s the novel and not the movie that induces nostalgia:

…He wondered if there was anything Portalic in those old Bing Crosby holiday musicals. Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, both self-consciously ridiculous as frilly drag sisters, lisping their way through that corny Irving Berlin number. Bing and Danny marching in full uniform with the rest of the boys across that Vermont ski mountain, reassuring Dean Jagger that even a retired Army hero occupied a very special place in the post-War nostalgia. Bing seated at the piano in the chalet, singing White Christmas to an enraptured Rosemary Clooney. Yes, of course that was it: that was the Portal.

Prop remembered reading somewhere that in real life Bing had been rather a cold-hearted bastard. This spiteful allegation had endeared the Crooner to Prop in a way that the smooth, schmaltzy screen persona never had. Bing wasn’t simply being himself up there: he was an artist who had created an alternate version of himself so consistent and compelling that the public bought it. Prop wondered whether the on-screen Bing wasn’t more real than the brooding and insular workaholic chain-smoking in his trailer between takes. A mean SOB singing a Jew’s Christmas song to a lush: this combination, this synergy, had opened a Portal so pure and powerful that it still worked more than half a century later…

It turns out that Prop remembered it wrong. Bing sings the song at the very beginning of the movie, in the WWII trenches. Then the whole troupe sings it at the very end. Bing sings a different song to Rosemary in the chalet.

23 December 2009

The Name

Filed under: Christianity, Culture, Language — ktismatics @ 6:14 pm

[For three years I’ve been a lurker on a Biblical Hebrew online forum. Usually I ignore the discussion threads, but here’s one that caught my fancy. Call this my Christmas post.]

It’s pretty widely known that the Biblical name of the Hebrew God, transliterated into English, is YHWH. There’s a longstanding Jewish tradition of not writing or speaking the name of God as a token of respect. In most English translations of the Old Testament the name Yahweh is usually written as LORD, which conforms to the time-honored Jewish practice of substituting adonai — Hebrew for “lord” — for YHWH when reading Scripture aloud. This euphemistic substitution was evident also in the Septuagint, a Greek version of the Hebrew Bible completed in the second century BC. The Septuagint translators generally replaced YHWH with kurios = Greek for “lord.” The New Testament writers, who wrote mostly in Greek, never used the name YHWH when referring to God. When they quoted passages of the Hebrew Bible they followed the Septuagint precedent of substituting kurios for YHWH.

However… Most of the earliest manuscripts of the Septuagint date to the 2nd C AD. In the very oldest fragments, from the first century BC, YHWH still appears in the text and has not been replaced by kurios. Is it possible that Jesus and his followers spoke the word YHWH, that the original New Testament documents likewise wrote YHWH and not kurios, that the prohibition against speaking or writing the name of God didn’t happen until later, say in the 2nd C AD? This seems unlikely, since not a single one of the early New Testament manuscripts or fragments contains the name YHWH instead of kurios. The first-generation Christians frequently engaged in heated public debates about how Jewish they should be with respect to following the laws and traditions. Never is there a mention about whether the name of God should be written or spoken. It would seem that either the issue hadn’t come up yet, or else it had already been resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

So when did the tradition of not speaking God’s name begin? There’s no prohibition against it in the Bible itself. To the contrary: when God reveals his name to Moses at the burning bush, he tells Moses that “This is my name forever, and this is my memorial name to all generations” (Exodus 3:15). In telling Moses what to say to the elders of Israel, YHWH explicitly says that Moses should speak the name YHWH. The text of Exodus probably reached its final edited form in the 5th century BC. The original Septuagint continued using the name YHWH in the 2nd century BC. By Jesus’ time, the name of God had probably already been euphemized to adonai, kurios, and even the more indirect version KS (abbreviation for kurios). So that suggests a time period around the first century BC.

Between the 4th and 2nd centuries BC, the Hellenes extended the Greek civilization throughout the Middle East, where most of the Jews lived. Greek became the official language throughout the region. Even after the Romans conquered the Hellenes, the Greek language maintained its dominance among the educated classes in the eastern sectors of the Roman Empire. In Hebrew the word YHWH looks like this: יהוה — read from right to left. But by the time of Jesus Hebrew had become virtually a dead language even in Israel. Someone encountering this Hebrew word in a Greek text might well have thought it looked like the nonsense Greek word πιπι — read from left to right, that’s pipi. According to St. Jerome this is exactly what happened, although how in the 4th century AD he would know isn’t clear (unless there were still texts in circulation using the Hebrew name). So there’s  one pragmatic reason for making the change. But why not just transliterate the Name from Hebrew letters to Greek? For one thing, there’s no Greek letter corresponding to ה (transliterated as H in English). But if people were used to hearing the name pronounced aloud the pipi error would likely not have happened, suggesting that the prohibition on speaking The Name was already in effect.

It’s possible that the non-Jewish population among whom the Jews lived would use the name of YHWH in vain, thereby violating the Sinaitic commandment. Surely blasphemy against the Jewish God had been common during the Babylonian captivity of the 6th century BC, but no evidence of the naming prohibition appears that early in Jewish history.

Here’s my guess, though I’m open to counter-persuasion. During the 150 years before Christ, Israel witnessed a significant upsurge in messianic and holiness and nationalistic movements. The successful Maccabean liberation of Israel from the Seleucids and the subsequent Roman conquest and occupation provoked an internal conflict within Israel between the conciliatory pragmatists and the separatists. Both factions might well have agreed on no longer speaking the name of the Hebrew god. Those Jews who wanted to blend in with the Greco-Roman culture wouldn’t want to call attention to their Hebraisms, whereas those who wanted to purify themselves from the outside corruption permeating Israel would want to emphasize their God’s transcendent separateness by withdrawing even his name from unworthy human voices and ears and eyes.

But now this question comes to mind. We’re presuming that the prohibition against speaking/writing/reading the name YHWH was already practiced by Jesus and his followers. The Epistle to the Philippians is widely regarded as authentically Pauline, written around 62 AD. Included in the letter is the so-called Kenosis passage, which may have already been a well-known Christian hymn that Paul incorporated into his text. It says:

“Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord [kurios], to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:5-11)

It sounds as if the Hebrew God, who isn’t named here but who is referred to as “the Father,” regards the name “Jesus” as the highest of all names. But it also sounds as though God the Father assigned the name “Jesus” to this guy after he had been crucified. But that’s not right: he was named Jesus at birth (Luke 2:21), and everybody called him Jesus during his life. Maybe a distinction is being made between the guy’s well-known human name, Jesus, and the name bestowed on him by God: the “name which is above every name,” which is the name. The name “Jesus” is to be proclaimed far and wide, but let it be understood: that name also points to another name, the highest name, a name which must remain unwritten and unspoken, the name he shares with God the Father.

I’ll keep my eyes open for further clarifications from the Biblical Hebrew discussion. And of course if’any readers of this post have insights or knowledge I hope you’ll divulge.

21 December 2009

In Memoriam

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 3:13 pm

This morning Anne and I attended a memorial service for the homeless people who died in Boulder during the last year. The inner wall of the outdoor band shell was encircled by nineteen enlarged photographs, each graced with a single red rose. They looked rough, the men and women in those photos, as did many who had come to mourn their passing and to share a few words of memory and solace. Here’s one of the songs played and sung at the ceremony.

18 December 2009

Deterritorializing High School

Filed under: Culture, Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 7:30 am

I’m neither a student nor a teacher in the educational system, so I don’t think about school as much as many people do. I’m writing now as an outside observer of the excellent American high school our daughter attends in this affluent and well-educated community. I have to say that I find the institution troublingly efficient and effective.

From a societal standpoint, the high school serves largely a preparatory economic function. It assigns tasks, equips individuals and groups to assume responsibility for completing these tasks according to the requirements, imposes external evaluation of outcomes, encourages both competition and cooperation in playing a game for which the rules and objectives have already been decided.

From the family’s perspective, the high school establishes the parameters of the sort of  task space in which one’s kid must learn how to function. Again, high school is a preparatory environment, simulating the workplace. If my kid is smart, she’s got a leg up on everyone else’s kid. If she can apply herself successfully to the tasks as they’re presented to her, earning high marks as evidence of success, then she can further exploit her natural talent in the competitive sphere. If she can package herself attractively, she can position herself for a big promotion: admission to an elite university, preferably a choice among several excellent options, with hopefully a financial scholarship offered as further incentive. It’s the parents who insist that the schools be tougher, assign more homework, achieve higher average scores on standardized tests. It’s also the parents who try to get their own kids an edge within this tough environment, pushing them to take the toughest course options, helping them with their homework, disciplining them if they underperform, sending them to SAT preparatory courses so they look smarter to the university admissions offices.

While I’m sure I’m not the only parent who questions this educational approach, I am, I’ve come to realize, one of the few. I don’t doubt that kids learn things in this sort of school. I also acknowledge that there are right and wrong answers, effective and ineffective ways of organizing ideas, good and bad art, foundational skills and knowledge on which to build more complex intellectual performances. I also recognize that many kids thrive in the high school environment, and that things tend to work out better for the high school thrivers at the next level.

Still, adolescence is more a cultural construct than a biological life phase. There’s empirical evidence that adolescent brains aren’t as hard-wired as they will be in a few years, making them both more malleable and more open to alternatives. Kids are also less risk-averse, which is certainly cultural at least in part, but it’s also probably neurological as well. Society expects nothing of adolescents other than staying out of trouble. And, let’s face it, most jobs can be performed competently with maybe six months of training. So you’d think that high school would be a perfect environment for taking intellectual risks, trying out unprecedented possibilities, following interests and passions wherever they might lead, cultivating standards and commitments.

I think about Deleuze and Guattari’s schizoanalysis applied at the high school level. The high school, and the high school student, seem like prime candidates for deterritorialization. The adolescent’s territorial channels would seem to be rather shallow and inchoate — which is part of the problem as far as many parents are concerned. Parents of primary schoolers exert discipline in order to get their kids to follow the rules. For high schoolers the parents and their adult allies shift tactics: now the main disciplinary objective is to get their kids to perform successfully in the socio-economic territorialization program laid down in high school. The territorial markings of lectures, homework, and grades have already been laid down in primary school; now you want your kids to internalize these markings. The disciplinary incentive shifts from present to future, from avoiding the displeasure of teacher and parents to earning a spot in a good university. And to a large extent these shifts succeed: the high school peer group seems hell-bent on reinforcing the standard objectives among one other. Kids who aren’t making it are either stupid or troubled. The kid who thinks the whole high school experience is stupid might well have caught on to something important, but the usual response of parents and school personnel is to treat the symptom rather than listening to it. Find a tutor, find a therapist, find a coach. Kids with a passion or special talent are admired by their peers and their peers’ parents — these kids will have an edge in applying to Dartmouth and Stanford. The talented kid who isn’t getting the grades? It’s inspiring: there’s room for all of us in this democracy of ours. And it’s encouraging: this talented kid has eliminated herself from the competition, possibly opening up a spot for my own kid at the next level.

What about deterritorializing the high school itself? There are some excellent schools that encourage self-study and customized curriculum-building. Generally these are private schools, available only to well-heeled families who can afford the tuition. Some public charter schools adopt this flexible approach, but they’re typically regarded by parents as sort of hippie schools, best suited for the free spirits (kids and parents), artsy/techie, not particularly challenging academically. The smart kids (and their parents) tend to self-select out of these schools. As a consequence, aggregate results on standardized tests tend to suffer, and so these free-spirit schools are regarded with some suspicion by the university recruiters.

So I’m wondering whether it’s possible to slice through the overly-territorializing high school machine at an oblique angle, a “schiz” that enhances experimentation both individually and societally. Most kids accumulate more than enough course credits to graduate and to satisfy the minimum requirements for university acceptance. Some kids do the bare minimum; most (at least around here) tend to fill up their schedules with elective courses selected from the high school menu, or from the local university for the more advanced students. What about self-study instead of electives? Encourage the curious kid to delve into some interest or cause in depth, pursuing lines of flight as they open up rather than following a prescribed curriculum, cutting across traditional disciplinary boundaries in the pursuit of some bit of truth or beauty or justice. Figure out a way for the kid to get academic credit for the project. Build some sort of collaborative component for kids whose individual interests converge. Help the kids make connections with experts and fellow enthusiasts in the larger world.

Hey, it’ll look great in the Dartmouth application portfolio.

16 December 2009

Are You Serious?

Filed under: Culture, Reflections — ktismatics @ 8:29 am

Why do you suppose this strikes me as funny?

It’s finals week at our daughter’s high school. Yesterday was the math test — “IB Elementary Functions” is the official name of the course. Our daughter thinks she did okay on the exam, but the girl sitting next to her apparently didn’t, attempting to answer only about half the problems. While the kid — call her Alice — was disappointed, it seems that she has reconciled herself to mediocrity in this particular class. So have her parents. Things were tougher earlier in the semester, when Alice’s parents grounded her for an extended interval after she received some bad scores on math tests. So Alice wasn’t allowed to socialize outside of school, right? No, that wasn’t it. She could only hang around with other Asian kids. In the opinion of Alice’s parents, Anglo kids aren’t “serious” enough.

Alice thought it was funny too.

11 December 2009

Desire is the Real?

Filed under: Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 3:14 pm

I’ve been engaged in a slow and sporadic conversation about schizoanalysis with Reid at Planomenology. Reid has also been exploring Brassier’s realism, about which I am woefully underenlightened. However, I have a hunch that this bit of text from AO is a nexus:

“If desire produces, its product is real. If desire is productive, it can be productive only in the real world and can produce only reality… Desire does not lack anything: it does not lack its object. It is, rather, the subject that is missing in desire, or desire that lacks a fixed subject; there is no fixed subject unless there is repression… The objective being of desire is the Real in and of itself.” (Deleuze & Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, p. 26)

Here D&G explicitly acknowledge the influence of “Lacan’s admirable theory of desire” even as they deflect that theory’s trajectory. For D&G, the unconscious doesn’t just reveal the subject’s real desire before it’s been repressed and rerouted by social conventions. Rather, desire creates the subject and the unconscious and the repression. Desire creates real effects, not just symbolic representations.

Does desire have the Real as its object? Does desire create the Real itself? Is desire identical to the Real? Not quite. Rather, D&G write that the Real is “the objective being of desire.” Here’s what I think that might mean. Desire is a primal and immanent and multiplex subjectivity that energizes everything. Whenever the trajectory of one desire is reinforced or diverted or cut off by another trajectory, this local interplay of desires becomes reified or “objectified.” The proliferation of objects in the world isn’t created or caused by desire; it is a transformation of desire itself, from pure inchoate subjectivity into the tangibly Real.

In elaborating on the differences between psychoanalysis and schizoanalysis, Guattari said this:

“For psychoanalysis, the unconscious is always already there, genetically programmed, structured, and finalized on objectives of conformity to social norms. For schizoanalysis, it’s a question of constructing an unconscious, and not only with individuals or relations between individuals, but also with groups, with physiological and perceptual systems, with machines, struggles, and arrangements of every nature.”

One might infer that Guattari regarded the unconscious as unique in this regard as desire’s precipitation into the Real. But there’s no reason to make that jump. Anything Real is an objectification of desire: the unconscious, the individual subject, the group. What about consciousness: is it a construction of desire as well? Sure, why not? It’s not that art or science or politics represent the Real; it’s that they are alternate objectifications of the Real. It’s not that I philosophize about the Real; it’s that the act of philosophizing is itself an objectification of the Real, a congealing of desire in the form of human thinking.

If this is what D&G are saying, then there’s no reason to prioritize expressions of the unconscious in schizoanalysis. Language and conscious thought, individual and collective action — these too are the precipitates of desire, these too are Real. The trick isn’t to get to a place prior to or beneath or parallel to consciousness, a place where unconstrained desire flows freely. The unconscious is just as much a construct as is consciousness; the unconscious is just as fixated and territorialized as is consciousness. Whether dreaming or free associating,  designing or building, organizing or collaborating, the task of schizoanalysis remains the same: deterritorializing, loosening the constraints that desire has imposed on itself, letting the Real assume different configurations.

While I’ve not read a lot of Brassier, I have read a bit. I’ve also read some of what Reid has to say about Brassier. And I’m thinking that this idea — of immanent subjectivity-without-a-subject congealing, objectifying itself and becoming Real in the form of human thinking — is at least part of what Brassier is after. I’m not sure how Brassier’s whole “death cult” extinction thing plays into this formulation, however.

9 December 2009

Broken Embraces by Almodóvar, 2009

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 1:31 pm

6 December 2009

Fictional Ontologies: Musil

Filed under: Fiction, Ktismata — ktismatics @ 12:40 pm

Two days ago I posted an excerpt from an early section of J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, in which appeared the phrase “the phenomenology of the universe, the specific and independent existence of separate objects and events.” Later, Ballard assigns to one of his paragraphs the title “a unique ontology of violence and disaster.”

Back in March 2007 I wrote a couple of posts that included most of the second paragraph and all of the third of Robert Musil’s monumental 1930 modernist novel The Man Without Qualities. I’m reprising those paragraphs here in the context of what might be called fictional ontologies:

Automobiles shot out of deep, narrow streets into the shallows of bright squares. Dark clusters of pedestrians formed cloudlike strings. Where more powerful lines of speed cut across their casual haste they clotted up, then trickled on faster and, after a few oscillations, resumed their hasty rhythm. Hundreds of noises wove themselves into a wiry texture of sound with barbs protruding here and there, smart edges running along it and subsiding again, with clear notes splintering off and dissipating. By this noise alone, whose special quality cannot be captured in words, a man returning after years of absence would have been able to tell with his eyes shut that he was back in the Imperial Capital and Royal City of Vienna. Cities, like people, can be recognized by their walk…

So let us not place any particular value on the city’s name. Like all big cities it was made up of irregularity, change, forward spurts, failures to keep step, collisions of objects and interests, punctuated by unfathomable silences; made up of pathways and untrodden ways, of one great rhythmic beat as well as the chronic discord and mutual displacement of all its controlling rhythms. All in all, it was like a boiling bubble inside a pot made of the durable stuff of buildings, laws, regulations, and historical traditions.

4 December 2009

Pre-Uterine Claims

Filed under: Fiction, Psychology — ktismatics @ 9:34 am

“‘The author,’ Mr. Nathan wrote, ‘has found that the patient forms a distinctive type of object relation based on a perpetual and irresistible desire to merge with the object in an undifferentiated mass. Although psychoanalysis cannot reach the primary archaic mechanism of “rapprochement” it can deal with the neurotic superstructure, guiding the patient towards the choice of stable and worthwhile objects. In the case under consideration the previous career of the patient as a military pilot should be noted, and the unconscious role of thermonuclear weapons in bringing about the total fusion and nondifferentiation of all matter. What the patient is reacting against is, simply the phenomenology of the universe, the specific and independent existence of separate objects and events, however trivial and inoffensive these may seem. A spoon, for example, offends him by the mere fact of its existence in time and space. More than this, one could say that the precise, if largely random, configuration of atoms in the universe at any given moment, one never again to be repeated, seems to him to be preposterous by virtue of its unique identity…’ Dr. Nathan lowered his pen and looked down into the recreation garden. Traven was standing in the sunlight, raising and lowering his arms and legs in a private callisthenic display, which he repeated several times (presumably in an attempt to render time and events meaningless by replication?).”

– from The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard, 1972

2 December 2009

In This Way I Was Saved by DeLeeuw (2009)

Filed under: Fiction, First Lines — ktismatics @ 2:18 pm

“I enter the lobby of Claire Nightingale’s apartment building, here to tell her I have murdered her only son.”

There was a certain part of this book, less than halfway through, just a few pages long: a short story within a novel within the novel, which, while I was reading it, made me feel that I could forgive anything else the writer did from that point on. The book did become more ordinary after that, and also at times extraordinary in ordinary ways. But there was redemption in that one passage.

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