26 February 2010

Islamic Sources on the Khazar Question

Filed under: Fiction — ktismatics @ 10:45 am

“And so the Princess Ateh was left to live forever; she could return endlessly and without haste to each of her thoughts and each of her words, because eternity had blunted her feelings for what comes before and what comes after in time. Love she could have only in her dreams. That is why Princess Ateh devoted herself completely to her sect of dream hunters, Khazar priests who strove to create a sort of earthly version of that heavenly register mentioned in the Holy Book. Her skills and theirs enabled her to send messages, her own thoughts or others’, even objects, into people’s dreams. Princess Ateh could reach the dream of someone a thousand years younger, and she could send any object to someone dreaming of her as safely as a messenger riding a horse nourished on wine, only much, much faster…

“[Al-Bakri the Spaniard] wrote in his cage by using his teeth to cut letters into the shell of a crab or a turtle, but since he did not know how to read what he had written, he dropped the animals back into the water, never knowing what messages he was sending out into the world. At other times, catching turtles at low tide, he would receive messages on their shells and read them, but he never understood a word of what he read. He died dreaming of salty female breasts in a gravy of saliva and toothache, relearning the language of the Holy Book from the tree on which he hung.”

– Milorad Pavić, Dictionary of the Khazars: A Lexicon Novel, 1984

24 February 2010

Flat Hamartiology

Filed under: Christianity — ktismatics @ 8:19 am

As a Catholic kid I grew up amid a hierarchy of sins. Venial sins were minor everyday violations — lesser offenses like swearing or disobeying your parents. Minor offenses incurred minor punishments: say a Hail Mary or two as penance; or, if you don’t get yourself confessed by a Priest before you die, you might have to put in a few years in Purgatory for each venial sin before you get to go to Heaven. There were distinctions made between venial sins: disobeying your parents was naughty, but lying to your parents was pretty bad. Mortal sins were the big ones: murder, … and what else? I was never clear on that. I assumed that violating the Ten Commandments was a mortal sin, but one of  the Commandments is “Honor your father and mother.” So disobeying your parents is mortal and not venial? Or maybe hitting your parents is mortal? My mother told me that her grandmother used to tell her that if you hit your mother your hand will stick up out of the grave. Maybe that’s what happened to Carrie in the movie. Oh, I remember another mortal sin: failing to do your Easter duty, which meant that you had to go to confession and communion at least once between Ash Wednesday and Easter. The consequence of committing mortal sin was potentially dire: if you died with an unconfessed mortal sin on your conscience you went straight to Hell with no possibility of release. The idea of a habitual pattern of sinfulness was alien to my young Catholic understanding: you could tell a bunch of lies without being a liar. Confess each lie and you’re off the hook.

I went agnostic as a kid, but then later on I got Born Again. I learned that the distinction between mortal and venial sin was bogus: any offense against God was grievous. No Purgatory either: only Heaven and Hell. Going to Confession? Irrelevant. If you’re Born Again, then you’ve been forgiven for all your sins past, present and future. There was debate about whether there might not be an Unforgivable Sin, or whether you could lose your salvation, or whether an ongoing pattern of sinfulness might mean that you’d never been saved in the first place. In the Born-Again theory that I learned, sin wasn’t a specific behavior but a way of being: either you were for God or you were against Him. Or perhaps sin was a life direction: moving away from God rather than toward Him.

And so in my on-again off-again Christian pilgrimage I encountered two distinct theories of sin. In the Catholic version, sins are discrete “objects.” One might think of sins as excretions of the self that cling to you and that weigh you down. These sin-objects come in varying weights, but there is a category of extremely heavy sin-objects that drag you all the way to hell. The lighter-weight objects participate in a kind of economy: you can get rid of the weight either by saying some prayers or by putting in some time in Purgatory. Famously, Martin Luther didn’t much care for the way the sin-economy was being administered by the Church. Clearly our contemporary criminal justice system operates according to a Catholic principle of discrete crimes as excrescences that can be paid for by time or money, unless of course it’s a “mortal crime.”

In the Born-Again hamartiology sin was a way of being, or a direction of movement, or a relational position. Sins as discrete objects weren’t important in and of themselves. Sins were external signs of an inner corruption that produce them, just as individual coughs and sneezes signify an underlying sickly condition. It was even possible to cure the sickness without clearing up the symptoms right away: the sinner’s corruption is removed, his direction turned around, his relationship with God restored, even if he does continue excreting the odd sin-object now and again.

So now I’m wondering whether the new object-oriented ontologies might be able to generate some alternative hamartiologies. Catholic sins are objects, but they’re hierarchically arrayed. Born-Again sin isn’t an object at all but an essence or trajectory or relationship. So I’d say that the Catholic scheme gives us a better starting point. On the other hand, there’s the Born-Again view that all sins, big and small alike, are equal in that they’re all generated by a serious, indeed a fatal, underlying condition.

How about this: Each person is an object; each sin is an object. A sin may (or may not) emerge from the interaction of a specific person with another person or situation or object: call this interactional context a “temptation.” The specific sin that’s spawned in the temptational interaction is a composite object, its specific properties generated by but irreducible to the properties of the individual sinner and the other object which the sinner encounters during the temptation.

What if temptation is resisted: is no new object formed? Or does resisting temptation produce a “virtue-object”? Do sin-objects still carry varying amounts of weight, as in the Catholic economy, and can removing this weight still be paid for by penance-objects? Do virtue-objects carry weight, or perhaps buoyancy — an anti-weight that counteracts the weight of sin-objects? Clearly more research is needed.

21 February 2010

The Man Who Would Be King by Huston, 1975

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 8:43 am

“We hear they’ve two and thirty idols there. So we’ll be the 33rd and 34th.”

“And gold and sapphires and rubies.”

“And the women are supposed to be very beautiful.”

“It’s a place of warring tribes, which is to say — a land of opportunity for such as we who know how to train men and lead them into battle.”

“We’ll go there and say to any chief we can find, ‘We’ll vanquish all your foes and make you King — King of all Kafiristan — for half the booty!” …So we’ll fight for him and loot the country four ways from Sunday!”

“Millionaires we’ll be when next you see us!”

“How’s that for a plan?”

– Screenplay by John Huston and Gladys Hill, from a story by Rudyard Kipling

16 February 2010

Moderation Tuesday

Filed under: Christianity, Culture, Psychology — ktismatics @ 8:31 am

So the Catholics invented Carnival and Lent, Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday, the cycle of excess and fasting, of dissipation and self-abasement. The Anglicans kept half the wheel but got rid of the other half. They even turned Fat Tuesday into Shrove Tuesday, “shrove” being the past tense of “shrive,” which means to obtain absolution for one’s sins through confession and repentance. I thought that’s what Ash Wednesday was for.

Carnival celebrates the last days of eating meat (carne) before lent, so Mardi Gras is traditionally a carnivore’s delight. Shrove Tuesday replaces the pig roast with a pancake supper. Those Anglicans sure know how to party.

I think maybe Shrove Tuesday ought to be celebrated as international WASP day. But let’s not get carried away.

15 February 2010

Color as a Tool

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 7:22 am

Anne is reading a book called My Stroke of Insight, in which neuroscientist Jill Taylor describes her massive left-hemispheric stroke and subsequent recovery. At one point Jill’s mother is helping with the rehab by having Jill work on crossword puzzles:

“My right hand was extremely weak so just holding the pieces and making comparisons took a lot of effort. Mama watched me very closely and realized that I was trying to fit pieces together that obviously did not belong together based upon the image on the front side. In an effort to help me, G.G. noted ‘Jill, you can use color as a clue.’ I thought to myself color, color, and like a light bulb going off in my head, I could suddenly see color! I thought, Oh my goodness, that would certainly make it much easier! I was so worn out that I had to go to sleep. But the next day, I went straight back to the puzzle and put all the pieces together using color as a clue. Every day we rejoiced what I could do that I could not do the day before. It still blows my mind (so to speak) that I could not see color until I was told that color was a tool I could use. Who would have guessed that my left hemisphere needed to be told about color in order for it to register?” (p. 99)

Neurological research has demonstrated that the right brain is dominant in color detection, but the left brain controls systematic problem-solving tasks. The implication is that, while this person’s intact right hemisphere could see color even after the stroke, her damaged left hemisphere didn’t remember how to use color pragmatically in solving the puzzle. Based on this self-report we infer that her brain injury severed the unconscious connection between sensation and perception, between the ability to pick up information from the environment and the ability to make sense of that information. She said that, when someone suggested that she use color intentionally as a clue to assembling the puzzle, she could “suddenly see color.” She must have retained the ability to sense color: just knowing that color could potentially be useful wouldn’t help a colorblind person solve the problem. However, since she couldn’t figure out how color contributed to her understanding of the world, from a practical point of view she might just as well have been colorblind.

12 February 2010

Realities and the “Really Real”

Filed under: Ktismata, Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 6:05 am

The realism wars have left me confused about what to call things.

I acknowledge that there are real things and forces “out there,” independent of my perceptions and thoughts about it. But I also think that there are are socially-constructed realities like languages and laws and politics and art. And I think there are individually-constructed realities, and fictional realities, and virtual realities. It seems to me that important distinctions are lost by regarding these different kinds of realities, as well as the things and forces that occupy them, as being ontologically equivalent objects, each of varying size and complexity, related to each other in various ways within one all-encompassing reality.

I’ve habitually spoken of alternate realities, not in a scifi sense but with reference to the different ways in which things and forces can be clustered together. Architectural realities and poetic realities differ in the ways in which trees and words and emotions are put together and understood and used. The raw universe hangs together all on its own, but scientific reality embeds that raw universe in a network of mental constructs and technical terms and theories and research methods and practitioners. Is it fair to refer to a scientific reality that’s related to but also distinct from the raw reality that is its subject matter? I’ve tended to think so.

To refer to the accumulation of scientists and methods and theoretical constructs and studies as a composite object seems inadequate to the task. Granted, the object-oriented approach acknowledges that the individual components making up such a complex object are affected by their participation in the larger context that links them all together. But it’s this larger context that spawns the ever-growing assembly of individual scientists and instruments and studies of which science consists and by which science expands and transforms itself. The larger context seems to determine whether the individual components are or are not science.

It’s possible to contend that individual objects contain properties or potentials that enable them to participate in various larger contexts. So, since a cedar tree is made up of molecules and elements it contains within itself the potential to engage in relations with physicists and their theories; since it’s also made up of genes it contains the potential to engage in relations with biologists; since it’s tall and pointed it has the potential to be incorporated in a metaphor comparing it with a flame. Did the cedar tree have metaphorical potential even before there were sentient beings inventing metaphors? That seems backward. I think that the invention of metaphor as a way of thinking and speaking creates the framing context in which the metaphorical potential of already-existing objects comes into existence. Surely the individual potentials and the contexts in which those potentials have meaning are interdetermined.

So what do I call these larger contexts that link things and forces together in particular ways? To me a scientific “object” connotes not something that possesses scientific potential, but rather something that is studied by scientists, or perhaps something that is used by scientists to study other objects. So too with a poetic object: it’s the tree, or the words to describe the tree, or maybe even the kind of literary device used to describe the tree.  To call science or poetry an “object” doesn’t work for me. To call science or poetry a “reality” does work for me, but it’s confusing. There are multiple realities, but then there is the “really real” of raw nature. There is the physical tree and the genetic tree and the poetic tree, but then there is just the tree.

10 February 2010

In the Margins

Filed under: Ktismata, Reflections — ktismatics @ 9:49 am

Is it just me, or is this whole blogging thing exemplifying the law of diminishing marginal utility?

7 February 2010

First Super Bowl

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 7:54 am

I would have watched the game, but my parents took me to a classical concert instead. I don’t remember anything about the music. I do remember that there was a girl sitting near us who I’d never seen before but who was cute as could be. I was I guess thirteen years old, and my passion burned for weeks over this mystery girl.

Two years later, and now it’s the beginning of my second year of high school. I’m an oboist in the concert band; right behind me sit the bassoonists. There’s a new girl, a freshman. Is it? Yes: it’s the same girl. My passions had drifted elsewhere by then, but over the next three years I got to know this cute, scholarly and shy bassoonist a bit. Elizabeth.

I quit university after my third year, intending to see the world, perhaps become a novelist. For six months I worked in a book warehouse to finance my trip, living with my parents to save money. I hung around some with Cliff, one of my old high school buddies who was also living at home. He had a girlfriend; I didn’t. Why don’t you ask Elizabeth out? It turned out that she was an old family friend of Cliff’s. Elizabeth was studying music at the best of the several local universities and — wasn’t everyone? — living with her parents, who told Cliff’s parents that she was feeling lonely.  So I called her up. I’d love to go, said Elizabeth. I remember it was a double bill: Leo Kottke, the 12-string player with a rather mournful baritone; and Jesse Colin Young, former leader of the Youngbloods, a folk rock band whose cover of “Get Together” became a kind of hippie anthem. I bought four tickets — we would double-date with Cliff and his girlfriend. The night of the concert arrives and I drive to her house to pick her up. Oh I’m so sorry, her mom says, but Elizabeth and her boyfriend are still out of town and they won’t be back until next week. I don’t know how, since I can’t imagine that I ever actually laid eyes on the guy, but I still have a picture of the boyfriend in my head: a bit older, tall, bushy black hair, full beard, headband.

Soon afterward the US military called me in for my pre-draft physical, which hastened my departure for foreign shores. I never saw Elizabeth again. Or maybe we went out once, and she told me about college, and how things weren’t working out with her boyfriend, and she showed me his photo. I guess I don’t really remember that part.

I googled her yesterday. She teaches private bassoon lessons at our old high school.

Some may come and some may go
We shall surely pass
When the one that left us here
Returns for us at last
We are but a moment’s sunlight
fading in the grass

C’mon people now,
Smile on your brother
Everybody get together
Try to love one another right now

4 February 2010

Is Radical Democracy Possible?

Filed under: Culture, Ktismata — ktismatics @ 8:00 am

Here’s a topic on which I hope to learn more than I can contribute, which I admit isn’t very much. Does asserting the political agency of individual humans automatically identify someone as neoliberal? This topic came under discussion on the last post, but the comment thread has gotten so tangled I’m not even sure I can find my way back in.

Much earlier in its history this blog hosted an acrimonious exchange about Hardt & Negri, whose idea of the “multitude” purports to open up the possibility of individuals allying together into emergent networks that generate new alternatives to the global capitalist order, alternatives that can compete with it on multiple local fronts and that can perhaps even undermine it from within. This seemed plausible to me; others in the discussion regarded H&N as sellouts, as neoliberals in Marxist clothing. Similarly, Deleuze & Guattari’s rhizomes and creative lines of flight are regarded by some on the left (and perhaps also some on the right) as a philosophical justification for entrepreneurial capitalism. Latour too: isn’t he providing a pragmatic and perhaps even an ontological rationale for neoliberalism, where coalitions of the wealthy are sure to dominate any and all trials of strength and thereby impose their reality on everyone else? Revolutionary political-economic forces cannot succeed inside of or in parallel to global capitalism, it is argued, because the hegemony of the dominant order can and will either prevent or defeat or coopt any potential competitors that arise. Only by overturning the dominant and dominating sociopolitical structures and displacing the ruling class is any meaningful alternative conceivable.

Liberal democracy presumably achieves social order from both the bottom up and the top down. From the bottom, individuals vote, form coalitions and power blocs, elect representatives, effect changes in governance that reflect their interests. From the top, the constitution, laws, and institutions of government maintain the democratic process and ideology. Presumably if enough people alllied together in support of a radical cause — worker ownership of the means of production, say — then through the gradual but irresistable exercise of emergent collective force the radical changes would be incorporated into the democracy, with top-down mechanisms adapting to enable those changes that have built their mandate from the bottom up. Laws, the constitution, enforcement, executive administration: all would be amended, within the broad top-down structures and ideals of the democracy, in conformance with the majority’s mandate for implementing the radical change.

I recognize that the likelihood of seeing radical change bubble up from the bottom seems pretty remote in the US, given both the imfluence of big money on all the elected politicians and the evidently non-radical preferences of the vast majority of the populace. But the whole idea of trickle-up political-economic change: is this the definition of political liberalism, regardless of how radical the proposed changes might be? In other words, is any sort of rationale for working within the liberal-capitalist system by definition a rationale for the system itself and so by definition not Marxist or even anti-Marxist?

2 February 2010

Merged Road-Foot Object

Filed under: Ktismata, Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 1:04 am

…any relation must count as a substance. When two objects enter into a genuine relation, even if they do not permanently fuse together, they generate a reality that has all of the features that we require of an object. Through their mere relation, they create something that has not existed before, and which is truly one… Granted, a relation between two objects may last only a brief while. But the same is true of objects that are obviously substances, such as mayflies or the fleeting chemical elements of californium. Durability is not a requirement for objecthood, just as being part of nature or having an exceptionally tiny size is not.”

“Inspired and radical claims,” is how Levi at Larval Subjects recently described this passage from Graham Harman’s Guerrilla Metaphysics. I remember that while reading the book I found these claims particularly troubling. I was thinking about them again today (or I guess it’s yesterday by now) while I was out running.

I start out walking, one foot or the other constantly maintaining contact with the road. So this ongoing relation between feet and road is itself a substance, an object. Then I start to run. With each stride both feet temporarily leave the ground. Does this mean that, whereas walking constitutes a single object, running creates a new object every time one of my feet hits the road? Or does the act of running constitute an ongoing relation between feet and road even when the feet aren’t actually in contact with the road? Maybe running is an “objectile,” a process with object-like qualities and vice versa, a kind of two-stroke engine moving steadily across the surface even when both “pistons” are up in the air. Or maybe the substance of running includes feet, road surface, and a zone of air extending a few inches above the road surface, with which my feet never lose contact.

As I run I look at a pedestrian walking toward me on the other side of the street. Now I’ve established a relation between my eyes and that person: another new object comes into being! Then my attention is drawn to a tall pine tree: yet another new object! But what about the eyes-pedestrian relational object: it’s gone now, the connection having been severed by shifting my gaze to the evergreen. While looking at the tree I blink my eyes, then open them again. Though my brain maintained continuity of attention on that tree, assuring me that the tree’s existence persists even with my eyes momentarily closed, in fact I could not see the tree during the blink. So did the eyes-tree object extinguish itself with that blink, only to be replaced almost immediately by a nearly identical eyes-tree object?

It seemed to me in reading the book that Graham insists on this proliferation of temporary objects because he’s persuaded that two objects never come into direct relationship with each other. Relations between objects are indirect and vicarious. Relations within objects, however, are direct. In order for my foot to have a relationship with the road, then, a new merged foot-road object must come into being. As subcomponents of this new merged object, foot and road can enter into relations with one another inside the inner “plasm” of this merged temporary foot-road object.

Levi says that this proliferation of temporary merged objects brings a lot of clarity to some persistent conundrums confronting continental philosophy. Maybe so. I must say, though, that it seemed to me while running that my two feet were continually making intermittent, alternating, direct contact with the road. Well actually, the contact wasn’t quite direct: I always wear shoes when I run, intentionally preventing direct (and painful) contact of feet with road. Anyhow, that’s the impression I get while engaged in the activity. I suppose I could teach myself to realize that these impressions are mistaken, just as I’ve taught myself to realize that the sun isn’t really going around the earth even though it looks that way. I could also remind myself that each time I glance toward the sun during the day I’m creating a new temporary eyes-sun object, and when I look away I’m destroying that object. Kinda cool.

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