Category Archives: Theory

A few words on Irrational Man

I read a selection of an Al Purdy poem in Keath Fraser’s Bad Trips anthology—this was a few months ago now—which depicted a persona, perhaps Mr. Purdy himself, trying to take a shit in the arctic while reading Irrational Man, except a pack of dogs was trying to eat his shit at the same time and they kept nipping at his anus while an Inuit boy threw rocks to try to fend them off. Interesting, I thought, that he was reading Irrational Man, because there was a scene of the type Mr. Barrett’s modern artists would have proffered as an example of the ugly or the mundane, recontextualized into art. Poetry about taking a shit—a radical break from the epic teleology that characterizes Western poetry.

At any rate, Irrational Man is a good book, but what of the lack of criticism that Barrett might have otherwise levelled at existentialism? Perhaps my chagrin is related to the fact that I was educated in the postmodern tradition, for better or for worse, and Barrett wrote this book well into the modernist period, and thus ideas about reflexive self-criticism may not have been as entrenched in the academic left at that point in time; but that raises a question in my mind about how postmodernism relates to existentialism, because at face value they appear to be more or less the same thing: a detailed critique of Enlightenment techniques and values. Based on what I remember from The Condition of Postmodernity, I could say that postmodernism is maybe an intellectual extension of existential ideas, but that postmodernism is characterized in particular by an aesthetic break from modernism, as exemplified by those modernist apartment complexes, the Pruitt-Igoe development in St. Louis, that were dynamited at 3:32 pm on July 15, 1972. But this doesn’t seem exactly right; it seems to be leaving something out; and I think that something is closely related to the atomizing of grand theories.

Barrett still talks about existentialism as a solution to the problems with Enlightenment arts and sciences, as if it’s getting closer to the truth of the matter than the enlightenment did by examining all of those dirty and unpleasant aspects of life that the enlightenment left out; he talks about existentialism as if it’s a more complete picture that should be substituted for the Enlightenment stuff, more or less; and even though he refers to the embracing of the fractured and contradictory nature of man as a central tenet of existentialism, he still depicts it as a coherent worldview, or at least a complete one. Postmodernism criticizes the ability of a worldview to be complete. It questions the utility of substituting one view for another on the pretext that the new one is truer or more accurate than the first. Existentialists might criticize science and technology because it has little bearing on how we feel, but postmodernism would criticize science and technology for characterizing itself as the truth. Although these approaches might be different, I still think that the existential concern for how we feel in the age of spritual impoverishment (i.e., post-religion) still underlies a lot of postmodernist concerns; this, plus the relativity of truth, plus the acceptance of the fractured and contradictory nature of human life, leads to a focus on things like cultural relativism and identity politics and whatnot, where there is an effort made to listen to alternative points of view and give credence to them based on the fact of their making someone feel a certain way.

Phallblogocentrism

Blogos proves
Those first hearing it
As numb to understanding
As the ones who have not heard.

Yet all things follow from Blogos.

Some, blundering,
With what I set before you,
Try in vain with empty talk
To separate the essences of things
And say how each thing truly is.

And all the rest make no attempt.
They no more see
How they behave broad waking
Than remember clearly
What they did asleep.

–Heraclitus

.

The issue herre is the maintenant: it travels through the entire book. How to put one’s hands on the tympanum and how the tympanum could escape from the hands of the philosopher in order to make of phallblogocentrism an impression that he no longer recognizes, in which he no longer rediscovers himself, of which he could become conscious only afterward and without being able to say to himself, again turning on his own hinge: I will have anticipated it, with absolute knowledge.

–Derrida

The walk sign is on iff the walk sign is on

I’m still not content with the walk sign issue. (Previously 1, 2.) Deciding what the walk signal means is apparently not as easy a task as I initially thought it was. In my last post I concluded that “the walk signal is there to tell pedestrians when they’re not going to be in contravention of the law by crossing the street.” On reflection, this seems horribly tautological – if there was no signal, people could cross whenever they wanted, assuming they were crossing at an intersection. Once there is a signal, then, according to my last conclusion, the only purpose of that signal is to inform people of when they’re in contravention of the law that supervenes on the very existence of the signal. The signal says when people are in contravention of the law; people are in contravention of the law when they disobey the signal.

P = “a pedestrian,” Y = “is obeying the law,” Z = “is obeying the signal”

(∃x)Px ,

(∀x)[(Yx⇒Zx)∧(Zx⇒Yx)] ,

Yx⇔Zx ;

Zx⇒Yx ,

Yx⇔Zx ,

Zx⇔Zx .

Choosing to cross on the walk sign, rather than on the wait sign, constitutes obeying the law. Thus, when the walk sign is on, the only thing the walk sign is signifying is that, if you were to cross, you would be obeying the signal. I could speculate that there are a bunch of cocky logicians working for city hall, but even if that was the case I would argue that having a signal installed only for the purpose of defining when people are and are not disobeying the signal is dumb, and there must be another reason why the signal is there. This follows from the whole concept of law ultimately being for the public good. I’m going to reiterate my earlier point that there must be some level of safety that’s implied by the walk sign being on, otherwise the walk sign wouldn’t exist. The walk sign must indicate, to some degree, that it is safe to walk, if only by a negation of the indication that it’s unsafe to walk when the walk sign is off.

(Feel free to correct me if my logic is off, it’s been a little while.)

Read and Listen

The Neuroskeptic has a great post tucked away in the archives about the Galileo Gambit, which is, in his words, “when people with unpopular ideas compare themselves to Galileo with the implication that, like him, they’re being persecuted for their unorthodox views but that they will eventually be proved right.”

Arguing for the unpopular view that “if most scientists believe something you probably should believe it, just because scientists say so,” he invokes some common instances of people thinking and acting like they know stuff when they clearly don’t, and in fact clearly couldn’t. Deniers of climate change are a great example of people who choose to scoff at the vast majority of climate scientists, apparently without acknowledging that climate scientists are the only people who are actually qualified to come to a conclusion about climate change. The psychological processes that would lead someone to deny climate change despite the fact that they have no basis for coming to a conclusion about it are complex and puzzling, especially since this tendency is so ubiquitous. (Cornell psychologists Kruger and Dunning have a theory – incompetent individuals lack what cognitive psychologists call metacognition, the ability to evaluate one’s own performance.) “Unless you are a professional climate scientist (or whatever), or an amateur with an unhealthy amount of spare time,” Neuroskeptic points out, “the chances are that you just don’t know enough to come to an informed conclusion.”

In a recent episode of CSI, Grissom explains to his gullible disciples why a string of cases were linked together, apparently coincidentally:

String theory is the theory of everything. Quantum mechanics tells us about the very small. The theory of relativity explains the immense. String theory ties it all together. It proposes that atomic particles are made up of infinitesimal vibrating loops of energy, or strings. Each string vibrates at its own frequency, like on a violin, producing notes, and these notes make up everything in the universe. These strings have been combining and recombining ever since the Big Bang. So the connections between our victims, or any of us, are not that extraordinary.

The problem with this passage isn’t necessarily his characterization of string theory, which could probably be, on some vastly simplified level, defensible as a pop characterization of the theory. The problem is his use of the theory to explain the coincidence of his cases, where as a matter of fact the coincidence of his cases has nothing whatsoever to do with string theory. Theoretical physics isn’t philosophy. Gerard ‘t Hooft, a physicist at the University of Ultrecht, put together a list of subjects you need to master in order to know what you’re talking about when you talk about string theory:

# Languages
# Primary Mathematics
# Classical Mechanics
# Optics
# Statistical Mechanics and Thermodynamics
# Electronics
# Electromagnetism
# Quantum Mechanics
# Atoms and Molecules
# Solid State Physics
# Nuclear Physics
# Plasma Physics
# Advanced Mathematics
# Special Relativity
# Advanced Quantum Mechanics
# Phenomenology
# General Relativity
# Quantum Field Theory
# Superstring Theory

The point being, if you don’t have a PhD in theoretical physics, you can’t really talk about string theory with any remote degree of accuracy. The same holds true for a lot of other disciplines that laypeople talk about all the time, notably psychology, economics, and statistics.

The increasing breadth and complexity of modern science has made it largely inaccessible to amateurs and laypeople. For that reason, we rely on other people’s word every day, when we read the newspaper or watch the news or, at another level, when we read journal articles and attend lectures. Its unavoidable. What we can do, though, to a reasonable degree, is evaluate the word that we’re taking from these people based on how qualified they are to come to the conclusions they come to. (Journalists, for instance, rarely have any expertise about anything they write about.) As NS says, if we’re going to take someone’s word, we might as well take the word of an expert, or better, a huge group of experts who agree with one another.

I bring this up now because my recent post about Mindful Education raised this issue in my mind. Both Ken Kavenagh and Ryan, who responded at length to my post agreeing with Kavenagh, have taken an unpopular view that goes against the empirical, verifiable knowledge of hundreds of psychologists and educators. It’s not clear why Kavenagh and Ryan consider themselves to be more knowledgeable about the subject of mindful meditation than these hundreds of experts are, considering that the experts are the ones who have actually researched mindful meditation and are qualified to come to a conclusion about it. What I was trying to get at in the last paragraph of my reply to Ryan is that, as NS says, “if thousands of intelligent people freely discuss something and reach a certain conclusion, that in itself is evidence (although not proof) that what they conclude is true.” While obviously skepticism is a desirable intellectual trait, assuming your own expertise on the basis of a few articles you’ve read here and there is a weird and counterproductive tendency that people enact all the time. (Including me! I can’t pretend to be innocent of this phenomenon.)

Real-world women-only utopias

I gave a talk the other day about, among other things, the political deployment of identity categories. In describing the essentialized concept of womanhood deployed by Janice Raymond and her cadre of separatist lesbians,* I referred to the Take Back the Night march as an example of a small-scale of a women-only utopia. This was particularly interesting to me because I came up with it on the fly, but it makes a lot of sense as a real-world example of a) how separatist lesbianism actually works, and b) what happens when the idealized conception of womanhood comes up against the failure of womanhood as a description of the real world.

I’ve always thought of separatism as a political carrot-on-a-stick concept akin to “saving Mother Earth” or “ending poverty”; I can understand the idea behind the motion and why it’s desirable, but the practical implications tend to boggle the mind. Women-only events like Take Back the Night (in Vancouver, at least) and the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival are practical manifestations of this desire, and they tend to express a lot of the positive outcomes that are posited in the conceptual model of separation – a unique sense of safety, freedom, empowerment, acceptance, solidarity and community.

Both events have been attacked for their essentializing tendencies; TBTN in particular for its blanket accusations of men, and the MWMF for its well-publicized exclusion of trans and intersex individuals. Organizers of the latter event originally intended for the event to be for womyn-born-womyn only. They eventuallly bowed to pressure from so-called Camp Trans protesters to allow post-operative trans women into the festival, who then came under attack from pre-op trans women, who typically were not affluent enough to afford surgery; pre-op trans women resented the fact they they were considered not “real women” by post-op trans women who were only womyn by virtue of having money. From what I gathered from this year’s festival website, they have returned to a womyn-born-womyn-only policy on curiously subversive identitarian grounds: one of the founders appealed to Camp Trans by asking trans women to “respect that womon born womon [sic] is a valid and honorable gender identity.” Note that this move renders “womyn” as an insular identity category, totally apart from what would normally be signified by “women.”

*In The Transsexual Empire, Raymond appeals to the tautology that only real women are able to identify who is and who is not a woman. The property that inheres in real women to make this possible is called variously “feminine spirit” and “women’s energy.”

Currently, of course

Every morning, the CBC radio show The Current has an introductory gimmick. After the theme music, a man known only as The Voice (actually B-list Canadian actor Stevan Hart) delivers a formulaic teaser using the format “[the date]. X. Currently, [something related to X]. This is The Current,” where X is usually a topical current event, and the thing related to X is typically delivered as a punchline. Here are some recent examples, courtesy of cbc.ca:

It’s Tuesday October 28th.

State officials in Ohio are investigating allegations that law enforcement computers were used to gather information on John McCain supporter Joe the Plumber

Currently, Joe the Plumber says he will gladly investigate the leaks himself as soon as he finishes his book tour.

This is the Current.

It’s Monday, November 3rd.

Most North Americans turned their clocks back one hour on the weekend.

Currently, John McCain says that’s proof his campaign isn’t running out of time.

This is the Current.

It’s Wednesday, November 5th.

Americans made history last night in an election many hope will unify the country and repair some of its deepest and bloodiest divisions.

Currently, Joe Biden says he’s humbled and deeply honoured to be America’s first Catholic Vice President.

This is The Current.

I have nothing interesting to say about these examples. It does get interesting, though, when they include introductions like these:

It’s Monday October 27th.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s recommendation that Bisophenal A — a plastic used in some baby bottles — is harmless, was based on a report by a group that counts chemical companies and plastic manufacturers as clients.

Currently, And it’s recommendation that eating ornate glass eggs is a good source of Omega 3 was actually written by Faberge.

This is the Current.

It’s Friday, October 31st.

President Bush called Philadelphia Phillies president David Montgomery yesterday to congratulate the Phillies on their World Series victory.

Currently, the Phillies immediately denied any ties to the Bush administration.

This is The Current.

It’s Tuesday, November 4th.

Residents of San Francisco are voting on a ballot initiative that would change the name of the local treatment facility to the “George W. Bush Sewage Plant.” The local chair of the Republican Party calls the idea “Loony bin direct democracy.”

Currently, Of course if the ballot passes, the loony bin will be the “Sarah L. Palin Centre for Interventions in Mental Health.”

This is The Current.

As you may have noticed, these examples have an unusual tendency to instantiate a grammatical incompatibility between the “currently” and the sentence that follows it. My brief survey of the last three or four weeks of The Current transcripts, represented by the above samples, indicates that there are four common forms that the modified sentence takes that lead to this disparity. By far the most common is a shift from the present to the past tense. Currently is a relatively marked introductory phrase in that it must modify a sentence in the present tense (note that other introductory adverbs like however, consequently, and nonetheless can modify sentences in any tense). Also common is a sentence beginning with a conjunction (“Currently, and Conservatives from coast-to-coast are once more rejoicing”). The third form is a sentence fragment or exclamation that would never take an adverbial modifier in normal English (“Currently, Silly protester”; “Currently … so he quit”). The fourth form, perhaps most confounding, is a redundant introductory phrase (“Currently, and so, in keeping with the spirit of the day…”).

While I would be interested to see an analysis of all of the show’s introductions since its inception, in order to determine if there is a trend toward these kinds of constructions, it definitely appears that the semantic value of the introductory phrase has eroded to the point where it serves only as part of a structural template rather than a meaningful component of the introduction. If this is symptomatic of a recent or gradual trend, that would indicate that perhaps the versatility of this template has underperformed based on the expectations of its creator.

The interesting thing to note is how obviously unnatural these constructions are. Arnold Zwicky at Language Log posted about similar template-constructions on Facebook, where newsfeed updates on the pages of people who have declined to provide sex information have sex-neutral pronouns inserted automatically into newsfeed templates, leading to sentences like

They is now looking for friendship, a relationship and networking.

Whereas Facebook’s transgressions are excusable on the grounds that they are produced by an automated computer system with no knowledge of correctness conditions in normal English, the introductions to The Current are presumably written by real people and are demonstrably read on air by a real voice actor. If they truly feel that they have reached the limits of this format’s facility, maybe it’s time to come up with a new format rather than broadcasting these grating errors every other morning.

Do Bugs Need Drugs?

The “Do Bugs Need Drugs” campaign is seeing a resurgence around the transit infrastructure in the lower mainland these days. I mentioned this a couple months ago when I brought up antibacterial cleaning products in this post, and there are a couple of things I want to say about it today.

When I was taking an ecofeminism course last year, this campaign came up as an example of women getting the short end of the stick in the context of environmental issues. (Ecofeminism, remember, is an intellectual activity with the goal of drawing links between the subordination of women and the subordination of the environment, in order to demonstrate continuity in the ways that differences between groups are hierarchized and manifested in relations of power.) The argument generally stated that since women have statistically been shown to be the primary agents in making medical decisions for the family, it is safe to say that this campaign is targeted primarily at women. But this is problematic for two reasons: one, patients generally have very little say in the matter of whether or not antibiotics are prescribed, and two, prescribed antibiotics are a drop in the anitbiotic-resistant bacteria bucket when modern agricultural practices are taken into account. Considering the multitudinous other influences on the develpment of drug-resistant bacteria, and especially considering the volume of antibiotics that are pumped into our livestock every day, it’s a little duplicitous to blame women for the problem when farmers and other parties should be held accountable.

Even though the ecofeminist argument requires statistical data that I don’t have access to, I still find the campaign very weird every time I see an ad for it. It seems like a public campaign to educate laypeople about the difference between viruses and bacteria is a colossal waste of money considering the apparent prevalence of doctors who prescribe antibiotics for viral infections, farmers who use antibiotics on their healthy livestock, and mainstream media inculcating the importance of antibacterial soaps and cleansers for staying healthy. All of these things have a detrimental effect on the efficacy of antibiotics, and all of them have nothing to do with the laypeople who see these ads every day on the skytrain.

Don’t get me wrong – I think it’s a great idea to teach people the difference between bacteria and viruses; but this is something that should be done in high school science classrooms, not skytrain platforms. As far as a targeted campaign to slow the increase in antibiotic resistant bacteria, DBND seems pitifully ineffective and misguided.