Archive for June, 2008

Studies in Context

Posted: June 21, 2008 in Culture, Philosophy

I really like this comic, from xkcd:


It’s not your run-of-the-mill comic strip, as it’s filled with technology, geekery, romance, and math. Many of the comics aren’t so much funny as they are wry commentary. The comic above isn’t funny ha-ha really, and I don’t know whether regular folks see its humor. I laughed, though, at the modest suggestion that practitioners of different disciplines might try to outdo each other with claims to purity. So it was especially funny when I read this quote from Edward O. Wilson’s book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge:

If the thread of causal explanations has been well laid, it is nonetheless possible to follow any pathway quickly in reverse, back through the behavioral sciences to biology, chemistry, and finally physics.

This quote suffers from a lack of context, but it captures the essential idea of the comic. Elsewhere, Wilson describes mathematics as the underlying basis of everything, a sort of Rosetta stone, though I don’t recall his using the word purity.


The first time I happened across an analysis excoriating Steven Spielberg’s films (or by proxy, the man himself), I thought it curious, even strange perhaps, that he was singled out for such invective. It’s indisputable that the fellow is an accomplished filmmaker, and his movies are almost always enjoyable and sometimes even good. If I bother to see a Spielberg movie in the theater, I usually expect to gobble my popcorn breathlessly and forget about the experience quickly after getting home, knowing it will be visually polished but narratively stunted. If the subject is more serious, I’ve learned to expect that I’ll be frustrated by the implications, not merely because the films open up uncomfortable questions on controversial subjects but because his treatments are usually found wanting after being filtered through his odd cinematic lens. (Cinema aspires to being art, but its feet are yet too firmly stuck in business, or money making; otherwise, there wouldn’t be so many formulaic films or constant criticism of cookie-cutter filmmaking.)

The second time I read how Spielberg is bad for film, I had to admit something is there, something more than idle enjoyment of a couple hours spent in the dark. It’s not just that the worldview presented in a Spielberg film is artificial — that’s true for almost all films — it’s that he has had a toxic effect on the whole enterprise. Consider this characterization, published in a review in the Chicago Reader:



Posted: June 5, 2008 in Culture, Tacky

Most bits of Americana have long since been coopted by other countries, just as America has coopted traditions originating elsewhere. Still, those of us of age and experience inevitably have indelible associations with examples of Americana such as parades, state fairs, circuses, drive-in theaters, Sousa marches, baseball (and baseball park hotdogs), and fireworks. Although my boyhood experiences with these are imprinted on memory, my adult relationships to most Americana have changed. I no longer feel the swell of pride in community, largely because urban living (among other things) has rendered community life dead. My most complete turnabout, however, is with fireworks.

Who doesn’t love fireworks? They’re goofy, meaningless fun. And boy oh boy do people like to see shit blow up. My family used to pile into the station wagon and go to the drive-in on July 4th for the annual fireworks display. Once per year made them special with that unique sense of childhood wonder. Flash forward a few decades, and fireworks are nearly year round. The biggest displays are usually still reserved for July 4 (or in Chicago, July 3, presumably so all the suburban families can also enjoy their local township displays the following night — a two-fer!). First Night displays are also commonplace. But now, baseball and football games, air and water shows, the Olympics, and hell, even Saturday are all now occasions for fireworks. Chicago’s Navy Pier has fireworks all summer on Wednesdays and Saturdays. I caught the display last weekend and didn’t oooh and ahhh as was the practice in my boyhood. Rather, there was an oppressively loud dance music soundtrack that I guess was intended to raise the excitement level. Most people watched calmly and went on their way afterwards without fanfare or any particular sense of occasion, just like people look a fine art in a museum and, lacking context and education to appreciate what they’re seeing, think “um, check, saw it — next!” (The audience did erupt a bit at the end when the traditional crescendo marks the opportunity to witness not merely blowing up shit but blowing up a lot of shit at once.) Of course, that doesn’t stop drivers in the vicinity of fireworks from stopping in the middle of the road to watch or weaving wildly as they crane their necks in an attempt to drive and watch simultaneously. July 4 is a very dangerous night to be on the road (which I’ve experienced too many times).

My favorite fireworks memories are playing American marches under the night sky during fireworks. Since I was playing, I didn’t get to see much, but it felt good, patriotic. Fireworks at the end of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, another familiar tradition, never seemed as fun. A few years ago, I played a concert where the end-of-show fireworks were sent up directly over the orchestra. The proximity was just too close, and it ruined my favorable associations with fireworks, just like the time I stupidly lit a too-short firecracker fuse, which promptly blew up in my hand and had my ears ringing for hours. Dumb, dumb, dumb ….

Ezra Klein has a thoughtful blog post (already aged by blog standards) called The Symbol Wars, which is not about the usual political ephemera. Rather, it’s a critique of some bit of light punditry with a surprisingly dark undertone:

We are no longer the only country with an internet, or a Sears Tower, if we ever truly were. And as more Americans come to realize that, it could have fairly profound psychological effects. After all, these symbols are how many folks have always understood our affluence … But now other countries are developing their own entries into that genre, and they’re no longer pale imitations of ours. As the world develops, America is going to start to look less exceptional — as that’s the inevitable result of being less exceptional … whether we see that shift as an opportunity or a threat is probably the most important foreign policy question of the 21st century.

I like Klein’s comment, but he stays safely at the surface of the issue. Klein correctly observes the significance of our symbols, but the obvious implication is that the U.S. should maintain its preeminence in the world, which means the continued deployment of military power, not just a few building projects. If there is currently a proposition with greater symbolic power, I can’t imagine it.

History tells repeatedly how dominant powers fade in importance. The most recent episode is Western Europe losing its luster to the restless energy and glittering accomplishments of the U.S. However, despite repeatedly tearing themselves apart with wars, most European societies have settled into a far superior though perhaps less glamorous social structure based less on radical self-reliance than communal responsibility and interconnectedness. Indeed, it’s probably true that Europeans learned some lessons from their warrior follies and relinquished some of their symbols of power and triumph. When a people no longer adheres so strongly to those ultimately empty symbols, they are content with less. But when a people is jealous of others’ ostentation and attempts to mimic and outdo it, well, there’s a problem, just as when we Americans expect that we can or should or will always prevail.

I pause to point out that humans are deeply symbolic creatures. The entire structure of rational cognition is based on the ability to absorb and manipulate symbols in the form of language. Although I’m no fan of postmodernism, deconstructionism, or identity politics, they often provide fascinating glimpses at the assumptions and thinking underlying our use of language. For instance, Wo! Magazine has an interesting article about the use of passive voice in journalism, from which I quote:

The use of passive voice in articles … subconsciously shapes the way people view violence against women. It is an insidious and unquestioned practice. In the passive voice version … men apparently don’t harass and intimidate women, women just run around getting themselves harassed. If active voice had been used, would the same conclusions be drawn? Would it have the same headline?

Examples of misshapen language abound, though it gets harder all the time to recognize when poor practice becomes the standard. We need to be able to rely on professionals to avoid common traps in the use of language. Of course, it’s inevitable that any bit of communication becomes propaganda for a particular point of view or argument. That, too, is part of the structure of language.

To take another example where the target is much easier, the blogger (Twisty Faster) of I Blame the Patriarchy takes to task the writer (Chrissy Callanhan) of an article in The Brandeis Hoot (a student newspaper) for adopting the assumptions of the dominant (male) culture even in the midst of a minor feminist moment. The writing at I Blame the Patriarchy is brilliant, and the propaganda is right up front. Considering my utter lack of feminist credentials (and since I’m not a female), I wouldn’t dare to instruct anyone in feminist ideology or language. I even avoided using the loaded term triumphalism above for fear that some commentator more educated and adept at cultural analysis than I am, like Twisty Faster clearly is with feminism, would rip me a new one. Still, it’s worth noting how language is so heavily laden with symbolism that both informs and obscures motivations and attitudes.