Things People Care About, That I Don’t.

Anything pertaining to Football. I haven’t watched a game all year. That’s been the case for a number of years, really. Football used to be an entertaining sport before every part of it got dissected like a pregnant frog for television, to be jabbered about by half-wits in ugly suits. The Super Bowl is a social event, really, just an excuse to judge commercial aesthetics, eat pub food, and moan about the half-time show.

Celebrities with Covid. Oh, no, not Larry King, the guy who’s interviews I’ve never watched! What will become of us if I’m not able to have warm feeling about him? If he dies, I just, I just won’t know how I can go on…
I get it. He’s an old man and he’s sick. So let me state for the record that my earnest hope is that he makes a full recovery, so I can be surprised by his continued earthly existence sometime next year. But I’m not related to him, he’s not my friend, I’m not even that familiar with his work. He’s just some guy completely memed by the media into Special Status.

Really, any celebrities. They’re just… not that interesting, as people. What you think you know about them is marketing fluff designed to prime you to consume their next product. I know that sounds communist, but I don’t mean it that way. Consume whatever you want. Just don’t care about the producers. They don’t care about you.

2021. This thing that we do where we treat years like sentient entities was already tired at the end of 2016, and has gotten worse with every subsequent year. Last year was the meme becoming self-aware and launching its missiles at the Russians (that’s a Terminator 2 reference, kids). 2020 didn’t do anything to you, a virus and the government did. Guess what? They still are. Covid doesn’t care that the calendar flipped. The year will be what it is.

Logic and Word Games

Over at Rotten Chestnuts, a post on Hegel and Marx that underlines the giant Problem of Philosophy.

One reason “underpants gnome metaphysics” appeals, of course, is that Hegel et al had a point. Classical logic has some huge gaps, as the Classical Greeks — i.e. the guys who developed it in the first place — well knew. Consider the famous “Achilles” paradox of Zeno of Elea (c. 490–430 BC). Achilles and a tortoise are running a race. The tortoise gets a ten foot head start. Can Achilles catch up?

In reality, of course, Achilles blows by the tortoise, but consider it from the “logical” perspective. In order for Achilles to catch the tortoise, he has to cut the distance in half. Now he’s five feet away. But to bridge that gap, he has to cut the remaining distance in half. Which he does, and now he’s 2.5 feet away. To bridge that gap, he has to halve the remaining distance again, and now he’s 1.25 feet away, then 0.625 feet away, then 0.3125 feet away, and so on, out to infinity. According to “logic,” at least, Achilles never catches up.

Severian, “Final Sample“, rottenchestnuts.com

As Severian mentions, this is probably an analogy for a high-level mathematical concept, and NOT an argument that motion does not exist (much the same way Schrodinger’s Cat is an analogy on the difficulty of observing sub-nuclear particles, and NOT a denial of the Law of Non-Contradiction). Because the minor premise of this “logic” (the infinite halves) is, shall we say, entirely questionable. All Achilles needs to do to catch the tortoise is run faster than the tortoise does. If the tortoise is ten feet ahead, and moves at .5 feet per second (a generous estimate) and Achilles runs at 4 feet per second, then at the end of 3 seconds, Achilles has gone 12 feet from the starting line, and the tortoise is 11.5 feet from the same starting line. Boom. It’s over. Simple mathematics, which, I’m told, is entirely logical.

{But first he has to go HALF! Yes, and at a constant rate, Achilles will cover 2 feet in half as much time as 4 feet, and 1 foot in a quarter as much time, 1/2 foot in an eighth, etc. Achilles could be a dolt at times, but nobody’s stupid enough to slow their speed by half each second of a foot race. Stop being such a nerd.}

The next paradox he mentions is even dumber:

Consider an equally puzzling Ancient Greek problem, the sorites paradox. How many grains of sand make a heap? Or, since this is the Internet, how many hairs must Jean-Luc Picard, the best captain of the starship Enterprise, lose before he’s considered bald?

Ibid

There’s actually a formal fallacy under this name: the Continuum Fallacy. But that’s less important than the deep and abiding idiocy of expecting that “bald” to be a precisely defined term. It isn’t, any more than “heap” is. And this is the Problem of Philosophy I mention earlier: it’s lost in an endless race to the bottom of granular defining. It’s all word games.

The Zen Master holds up a staff. He says to his pupils: “If you call this a staff, you deny its eternal life. If you do not call it a staff, you deny it’s present fact. Tell me, just what do you propose to call it?”

Like all Zen Koans, there isn’t one answer, but the one I find most useful is to look at this as a meditation on the limitations of language as such. No matter what word you use, you’re focusing on a specific aspect of the thing’s existence. No word exists that describes the fact that the staff as once part of a tree, which was one a seed, which was once part of another tree, and will shortly be dust to be sucked up by the roots of another tree, while also describing the fact that it’s an inanimate object you can smack your stupider students on the butt with.

Translation: words communicate ideas, and can so be very very vague while still being effective. Humans use language as a tool, language is not fixed. So demanding absolute precision in words outside of a highly technical context isn’t just nerdery, angels-on-pinheads; it’s a sisyphean nightmare, on the order of the infinite cyle-of-halves. The aforementioned Schrodinger may be right about subatomic particles (for all I know — I took Physics for Non-Science Majors), but that doesn’t translate up to an inability to determine if a cat is dead or not. Much of modern and post-modern philosophy is an exercise in playing word games in a fruitless quest to provide the metaphysical underpinning that used to come to us via religion. It won’t work, because words are too flexible and incomplete to meet these needs. Whatever conceptual structure we create, (say “gender”), we can uncreate just as fast, as soon as we find the limits of it. It’s nothing but Imaginary Wack-a-Mole.

Happy New Year.

The Three Tiers of Aesthetics

A long essay, but worth your time, which dovetails nicely with other things I’ve written on the subject. Our Cranky Professor lays out three “approaches” to aesthetics/beauty:

  • The Psychological Approach – In which one experiences beauty as an individuated response to the appearance of a thing. A Flower is Beautiful.
  • The Rational Approach – An understanding that beauty runs parallel to order. A well-ordered thing is a beautiful thing, whether or not you enjoy looking at it. The Human Brain is Beautiful.
  • The Mystical/Spiritual Approach – The idea that Beauty is rooted in the supernatural, as a reflection of a cosmic truth. The Buddah is Beautiful.

These can intersect (there are those prepared to argue that the Psychological Approach is simply the recognition of what is found in the Rational Approach), but what I like is that it covers the multiple meanings found in the word “beautiful”. Recall when I wrote this:

On top of that, the idea of objective aesthetics sounds to many people like “objective enjoyment” and enjoyment is an emotional response to something. You enjoy something. You cannot make yourself enjoy something that you do not, in fact, enjoy. The Star Wars prequels and David Lynch’s Dune are my personal evidence to that.

Originality is Not Art

This issue is handled by Approach Theory. Something can be “rationally beautiful”, while not eliciting a psychological response. A thing can be beautifully constructed, and still boring. This helps me understand what Camille Paglia was blathering about when she praised the end of Revenge of the Sith as a work of profound art.

The Mustafar duel, which took months of rehearsal, with fencing and saber drills conducted by sword master Nick Gillard, was executed by Hayden Christensen and Ewan McGregor at lightning speed. It is virtuosic dance theater, a taut pas de deux between battling brothers, convulsed by attraction and repulsion. Their thrusts, parries, and slashes are like passages of aggessive speech. It is one of the most passionate scenes ever filmed between two men, with McGregor close to weeping. The personal drama is staged against a physical one: wrangling and wrestling, Anakin and Obi-Wan fall against the control panels of a vast mineral-collection plant, which now starts to malfunction and fall to pieces. As the two men run and leap for their lives, girders, catwalks, and towers melt and collapse into the lava, demonstrating the fragility of civilization confronted with natures brute primal power.

Camille Paglia, GLITTERING IMAGES, pgs. 188-189

Stipulate that George Lucas had all this in mind when he made the scene. Stipulate that Revenge of the Sith is the closest thing to the pony in the pile of turds that is the Prequel Trilogy. It’s still a boring movie to watch, and this scene is only slightly less boring. For one thing, it goes on way too long. For another, the emotions Paglia find in the scene are turned on an off like switches, a problem that abounds throughout theses movies. Suddenly Obi-Wan is in tears, yes, and McGregor does his level best to make it real. But there’s been nothing building to this moment. We haven’t seen Obi-Wans’ face grow in passion. They’ve been staring at each other and fighting for what seems like an hour. I don’t suddenly feel attached to McGregor’s performance. It leaves me cold like everything else in this trilogy does. I understand what Paglia’s saying. I can see truth in her assessment. It doesn’t change my individuated experience of the film one bit, and I’ve watched this scene since I’ve read this book. The prequels are still dull robot-kabuki decanted in a lab.

Thus, adopting an awareness of Approach can go a long way towards settling our various disagreements about aesthetics. It recognizes the subjective and the objective. Read the Whole Thing.

Shallow & Pedantic 8 – Comic Books and Other Shenanigans

There’s probably a thousand podcasts meeting that description, but whatever. This one is ours. And we run through a host of topics, some silly, some deeply silly. And we go on for the length of a Bible on them.

I’m using the YouTube embed because WordPress is being every more exponentially garbage at embedding what Spreaker gives me. WordPress’ Podcast Player block refuses to embed my RSS url, and for some reason known only to God the episode permalink, a hack which worked just fine last month, will not embed now. The lengths to which WordPress is willing to go to hobble embeds for paying customers feels like emotional abuse. I’m not going to pay another $300 for your Business Plan so I can have plugins just so things that aren’t YouTube embed normally, WordPress. You can go pound sand.

Merry Christmas.

Lucretius’ Poetic Epicureanism

There once was an Epicurean Roman named Titus Lucretius Carus, who lived in the 1st Century BC. I say “Epicurean” as a follower of the philosophy of Epicurus. Epicureanism began as a combination of an empirical epistemology (we can know things only insofar as we can observe them), atomistic materialism (there is nothing but atoms and the void) with concomitant naturalistic evolution, and a kind of agnostic Deism which early Buddhism would find agreeable. The simplistic reduction of all this, “seek pleasure, avoid pain” made the word “epicurean” a synonym for “libertine”. Mass awareness always destroys nuance.

Lucretius was an Epicurean of the old school, however, and composed a poem to Preach the Good News of Epicurus, called On the Nature of Things . It is not the most entertaining of works. Poetry can be a good vehicle for philosophy, but overall Lucretius appears to be one of those fellows in love with the sound of his own voice. I don’t mind volubility in Virgil; he’s telling a ripping yarn, and while the plot of the Aeneid moves slowly from point A to B, there’s plenty of action on the way. But listening to Lucretius tell me how good his arguments and sound his proofs are gets old quickly. Roman Stoics, at least going by Seneca, had at least the good sense to be laconic.

That said, one or two passages do leap off the page as good analogies:

Men shot; the hills
re-echoing hurl their voices toward the stars;
the cavalry whele, then suddenly post and pound
with earthquake power across the open fields.
Yet high in the hills there is a place from which
They seem a motionless bright spot on the plain.

Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, II.327-332

This perspective-shift serves to explain a problem with atomism described several lines above (II.309-310), that of “why, though all the basic particles are in motion, their total seems to stand at total rest.” Lucretius is at his best at moments like this, painting a picture to honor the bright and illumine the dark parts of his adopted philosophy. I argued in my post about “Cuties” (remember that? That was only a few months ago. This year is a lifetime) that Art achieves its highest form as a vehicle for ideas. It does not have to do that consciously in order to be successful, but it can aim for immortality that way. There’s no reason that someone in 21st-Century America should have found this in the poetry section of a Barnes & Noble, other than its a higher and nobler form of Art. Stylistic quibbles aside, that merits the consideration.

Caligula will have things to say about him, as I have mentioned.

Old Favorites: Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood

A while back I made a vow to ignore the pulsating mediocrity of our degenerate film industry and embrace film classicism. This hasn’t exactly panned out how I envisioned it, as there’s only so much scratch you can throw around for Criterion Blu-Rays when you have mouths to feed. However, a flash sale enabled me to get my hands on an old favorite: Kurosawa’s 1957 adaptation of Macbeth. It goes under the title “Throne of Blood”, and I was first introduced to it in my younger days.

Its plot recreates Macbeth entirely, making only changes in naming and dialogue (Washizu, the Macbeth of this story, copies MacBeth’s first line “So fair and foul a day I have not seen,” pretty fully, though). In the place of Medieval Scotland, we have Spider’s Web Castle, seat of a powerful daimyo (the petty kings of Medieval Japan), which appears at the opening and closing of the film as an ruin with a monument, like Shelley’s Ozymandias. There’s an idea that while the past may be dead and buried, and the things that animated ancient struggles nothing more than vanity and chasing after wind, nevertheless their ghosts still haunt us. The past is past, but it is also prologue, even if we don’t fully understand the story.

Re-setting the Macbeth tale of ambition, regicide, tyranny, and comeuppance in Japan allows the cruel nihilism of the story to find a spiritual home in that country’s Zen and Shinto worldview. Shakespeare’s play ignores Catholicism, letting the Heathen witches dominate the tale, giving Macbeth an oracular doom he is no more able to counteract than Oedipus was. In Throne of Blood, the Three Wierd Sisters become a Single Spirt, a kami that laughs at man in a cosmic sense, a being unto-death. He is not here to corrupt Washizu, to accomplish some chaotic goal. He simply does not care, because there is nothing to care about. Life is to be glorious and short, like the cherry blossom. What else would it be?

Another element of the story is it’s staging. Elements of traditional Noh acting and costuming were brought in. This lends the film a genuinely wierd and primal tone, in keeping with a tale of blood and thunder. Everyone looks like they’re about ready to burst under the strain of struggling. This is especially true of the Lady Macbeth composite, Asaji, who’s makeup renders her visage nearly demonic. She has an expanded role in this production, the constant needle in Washizu’s heart, twisting him to further his ambition. Kill or Be Killed, she wheedles, stoking dead coals of fear into bright bloody deeds. I’ve always considered Lady MacBeth to be all talk, as incapable of using a dagger as she is of conceiving a child. Throne of Blood doesn’t upend that conception as much as illustrate the power of talk, the devilish way rhetoric can get inside our heads. Gorgias would be proud.

The critical hot take is that this is the best film of MacBeth there is. Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom said it was the only successful version. I would disagree, as the most recent version with Michael Fassbender has a bold and striking production value, and Fassbender breathes life into the title character better than any version I’ve seen. But Throne of Blood, in cutting the story loose from its usual setting, lets us see the character and drama apart from the obligatory Bardolatrous reverence. That is a great service, worthy of renown.

Finally, Some Good News: A Brutal Destruction of the Modern Age by Delicious Tacos

It’s the ending, really. I did not see that ending coming. I should have: it’s on theme. This wasn’t going to be an upbeat ending. That’s not what DT does. Still, though. It was a bit like a mallet to the face. I cannot recommend this book to anyone who has a sunny, cheerful worldview. You will not like it. Also anyone who enjoys daytime television or has a long career of corporate success. You will feel seen.

One does not write a book like this, in which nuclear devestation snaps civilization in two, and celebrates the freedom of it, without having some very real things to say about the post-human tsunami currently riding over us. In the end, Los Angeles suffers nuclear attack not because terrorists want to hurt us (such is always the case), but because our world is too compromised, too absorbed in nonsense, to defend itself. We have branded ourselves to death. Those that pushed us to this precipice: who have rendered every thought, creation, or need into “branded content”, cannot be allowed to have a place in the restoration, such as it is. Civilization must be less civilized if it is to have the animus to survive.

This novel goes forward in a Bukowskian mode, dry and unromantic, finding poetry in the cruelty of life. It is also told in a somewhat non-linear fashion, although things settle down for the third act. Much of its beginning reads very like the slice-of-life tales/lamentations that inhabit The Savage Spear of the Unicorn (which is also worth reading, as its humor is blacker than the bottom of a sewer):

He was eligible for a 401(k). He read up. You can retire comfortably at 65 if you start saving at 23, said Forbes.com. Even with a relatively low yield of 6%. Every 401(k) he’d had earned 1%, lost 2.5% in fees. As for saving at 23: median household pre-tax income is $51,989 per year. Who saves on 40 grand net with a kid. It costs twice that for a school where gas huffing sasquatches don’t commit Rwandan machete genocide. Nobody has money. Nobody gets returns. We’ll all work till we’re dead. Eating shit, having to smile about it.

If I was married– if my wife could work part time. Cover rent. That’d be something. But there aren’t wives now.

Delicious Tacos “Finally Some Good News, Chapter 2

And at first I thought it was going to continue in that vein, more of the “corporate wage slave experiences tfw no gf* in Los Angeles”. A literary Office Space, updated for the new century. But then the bombs drop, and everything stupid and false is wiped away. It’s not a lamentation, it’s a consummation, devoutly to be wished, on the order of Tom Waits’ “Make it Rain.” Society can only get so absurd before it becomes dysgenic, whereupon the Gods of the Copybook Headings get mightily insistent.

The great question I have when reading Taco’s work is why he picked so glaringly obvious a Pseudonym. On the one hand, the ridiculousness of it is a joke itself, an obvious late-night idea thrown off the wall of the mind that somehow stuck. A more believable, more standard nom de plume wouldn’t frame the oevre in the same way. On the other hand, shoving your nose in the realitythat a significant writer, whose work sells well on Amazon, has to hide his identity in order to keep the wolf from the door speaks loud volumes about the world we live in, and who benefits from it.

That ending though. It’s almost too rough to be funny.

*The Feels When no GirlFriend

Balzac Was Funny

More Properly, he was Droll, i.e. curious or unusual in a way that provokes dry amusement. I think ol ‘Honore invented the style of feigned ironic detachment in order to draw a laugh.

In the years that followed, he delivered up countless towns in Asia and in Africa to sack, fell upon the miscreants without warning, ripped up Saracens, Greeks, Englishmen and sundry other nationals, heedless of whether they were allies or whence they came. Among his sterling merits was a lack of curiosity: he never questioned his victims until after he had slain them.

Honore de Balzac, ” The Venial Sin”

Dryer than a Baptist wake, that is. And possessed of that circuitous truth-telling, with slyness to make the medicine go down.

He it was who, when in rare form one day, avvered that four things in life are excellent and opportune: to void hot, to drink cold, to rise hard, and to swallow soft. Certain persons have vituperated against him for consorting with filthy sluts. This is utter nonsense: his sweethearts, one of whom was legitimatized, all came from great houses and all presided over sizy establishments.

Honore de Balzac, “The Merry Jests of King Louis the Eleventh”

The question becomes, what purpose has this besides drollery? Given the years of his life, (1799-1850), one must expect the rustle of the full and gaudy robes of 18th-century prejudice, a post-Revolutionary figure sending up the pre-Revolutionary establishment. One picks up Voltairean echoes here. But where Voltaire smirks, Balzac merely chuckles, giving hypocrites the grace of humor. Having seen in his youth the idealism of Revolution drowned in terror and war, he went above damning the Middle Ages for a lack of saintliness.

He has been called a “realist”, which I take to mean his characters act as humans do. But Realism always betrays a narrowness; one sees what one sees, and nothing more. The jump from “I observe men acting like this,” to “men are this,” passes the smell test but not a rigorous logical assessment; generalizations by nature do not account for individuation. I think his characters contain complexities, like Shakespeare’s, which reminds us of the dizzying and contrary impulses contained within our own souls. Perhaps that is less “realism” than “humanism”, minus the pseudo-ideological, actually-rhetorical weight of that term.

Anyhow, a charming fellow. Enjoy him with some cognac.