Archive for August, 2018

Not a person alive having reached even a modest level of maturity hasn’t looked back at some choice or attitude of his or her past and wondered “What on earth was I thinking?” Maybe it was some physical stunt resulting in a fall or broken bone (or worse), or maybe it was an intolerant attitude later softened by empathy and understanding when the relevant issue became personal. We’ve all got something. Some of us, many somethings. As a kid, my cohorts and I used to play in leaves raked into piles in the autumn. A pile of leaves isn’t a trampoline and doesn’t really provide cushion, but as kids, it didn’t matter for the purpose of play. At one point, the kid next door dared me to jump from the roof of his front porch into a pile of leaves. The height was probably 15 feet. I remember climbing out and peering over the gutters, wavering a bit before going back inside. I didn’t jump. What was I thinking? It would have been folly to take that dare.

Some youthful indiscretion is to be expected and can be excused as teaching moments, but in truth, most of us don’t have to go far back in time to wonder “what in hell was I thinking?” Maybe it was last week, last month, or a few years ago. The interval matters less than the honest admission that, at any point one might believe he or she has things figured out and can avoid traps that look clear only in hindsight, something will come up and remind that, despite being wizened through experience, one still misjudges and makes egregious mistakes.

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In an earlier blog post, I mentioned how killing from a distance is one way among many that humans differentiate from other animals. The practical advantage of weaponry that distances one combatant from another should be obvious. Spears and swords extend one’s reach yet keep fighting hand-to-hand. Projectiles (bullets, arrows, catapults, artillery, etc.) allow killing from increasingly long distances, with weapons launched into low orbit before raining down ruin being the far extreme. The latest technology is drones (and drone swarms), which remove those who wield them from danger except perhaps psychological torment accruing gradually on remote operators. Humans are unique among animals for having devised such clever ways of destroying each other, and in the process, themselves.

I finally got around to seeing the film Black Panther. Beyond the parade of clichés and mostly forgettable punchfest action (interchangeable with any other Marvel film), one particular remark stuck with me. When the warrior general of fictional Wakanda went into battle, a female as it happens, she dismissed the use of guns as “primitive.” Much is made of Wakanda’s advanced technology, some of it frankly indistinguishable from magic (e.g., the panther elixir). Wakanda’s possession of weaponry not shared with the rest of the world (e.g., invisible planes) is the MacGuffin the villain seeks to control so as exact revenge on the world and rule over it. Yet the film resorts predictably to punching and acrobatics as the principal mode of combat. Some of that strategic nonsense is attributable to visual storytelling found in both comic books and cinema. Bullets fly too fast to be seen and tracking airborne bombs never really works, either. Plus, a punch thrown by a villain or superhero arguably has some individual character to it, at least until one recognizes that punching leaves no lasting effect on anyone.

As it happens, a similar remark about “primitive” weapons (a blaster) was spat out by Obi-Wan Kenobi in one of the Star Wars prequels (dunno which one). For all the amazing technology at the disposal of those characters long ago in a galaxy far, far away, it’s curious that the weapon of choice for a Jedi knight is a light saber. Again, up close and personal (color coded, even), including actual peril, as opposed to, say, an infinity gauntlet capable of dispatching half a universe with a finger snap. Infinite power clearly drains the stakes out of conflict. Credit goes to George Lucas for recognizing the awesome visual storytelling the light saber offers. He also made blaster shots — the equivalent of flying bullets — visible to the viewer. Laser beams and other lighted projectiles had been done in cinema before Star Wars but never so well.

 

A paradoxical strength/weakness of reason is its inherent disposition toward self-refutation. It’s a bold move when undertaken with genuine interest in getting things right. Typically, as evidence piles up, consensus forms that’s tantamount to proof unless some startling new counter-evidence appears. Of course, intransigent deniers exist and convincing refutations do appear periodically, but accounts of two hotly contested topics (from among many) — evolution and climate change — are well established notwithstanding counterclaims completely disproportionate in their ferocity to the evidence. For rationalists, whatever doubts remain must be addressed and accommodated even if disproof is highly unlikely.

This becomes troublesome almost immediately. So much new information is produced in the modern world that, because I am duty-bound to consider it, my head spins. I simply can’t deal with it all. Inevitably, when I think I’ve put a topic to rest and conclude I don’t have to think too much more about it, some argument-du-jour hits the shit pile and I am forced to stop and reconsider. It’s less disorienting when facts are clear, but when interpretive, I find my head all too easily spun by the latest, greatest claims of some charming, articulate speaker able to cobble together evidence lying outside of my expertise.

Take for instance Steven Pinker. He speaks in an authoritative style and has academic credentials that dispose me to trust his work. His new book is Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018). Still, Pinker is an optimist, whereas I’m a doomer. Even though I subscribe to Enlightenment values (for better or worse, my mind is bent that way), I can’t escape a mountain of evidence that we’ve made such a mess of things that reason, science, humanism, and progress are hardly panaceas capable of saving us from ourselves. Yet Pinker argues that we’ve never had it so good and the future looks even brighter. I won’t take apart Pinker’s arguments; it’s already been done by Jeremy Lent, who concludes that Pinker’s ideas are fatally flawed. Lent has the expertise, data, and graphs to demonstrate it. Calling Pinker a charlatan would be unfair, but his appreciation of the state of the world stands in high contrast with mine. Who ya gonna believe?

Books and articles like Pinker’s appear all the time, and in their aftermath, so, too, do takedowns. That’s the marketplace of ideas battling it out, which is ideally meant to sharpen thinking, but with the current epistemological crises under way (I’ve blogged about it for years), the actual result is dividing people into factions, destabilizing established institutions, and causing no small amount of bewilderment in the public as to what and whom to believe. Some participants in the exchange of ideas take a sober, evidential approach; others lower themselves to snark and revel in character assassination without bothering to make reasoned arguments. The latter are often called a hit pieces (a special province of the legacy media, it seems), since hefty swipes and straw-man arguments tend to be commonplace. I’m a sucker for the former style but have to admit that the latter can also hit its mark. However, both tire me to the point of wanting to bury my head.

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I mentioned blurred categories in music a short while back. An interesting newsbit popped up in the New York Times recently about this topic. Seems a political science professor at SUNY New Paltz, Gerald Benjamin, spoke up against a Democratic congressional candidate for New York’s 18th district, Antonio Delgado, the latter of whom had been a rapper. Controversially, Benjamin said that rap is not real music and does not represent the values of rural New York. Naturally, the Republican incumbent got in on the act, too, with denunciations and attacks. The electoral politics angle doesn’t much interest me; I’m not in or from the district. Moreover, the racial and/or racist elements are so toxic I simply refuse to wade in. But the professorial pronouncement that rap music isn’t really music piqued my interest, especially because that argument caused the professor to be sanctioned by his university. Public apologies and disclaimers were issued all around.

Events also sparked a fairly robust commentary at Slipped Disc. The initial comment by V.Lind echoes my thinking pretty well:

Nobody is denying that hip-hop is culturally significant. As such it merits study — I have acknowledged this … The mystery is its claims to musical credibility. Whatever importance rap has is in its lyrics, its messages (which are far from universally salutory [sic]) and its general attempt to self-define certain communities — usually those with grievances, but also those prepared to develop through violence, sexism and other unlovely aspects. These are slices of life, and as such warrant some attention. Some of the grievances are well-warranted …

But music? Not. I know people who swear by this genre, and their ears are incapable of discerning anything musical in any other. If they wanted to call it poetry (which I daresay upon scrutiny would be pretty bad poetry) it would be on stronger legs. But it is a “music” by and for the unmusical, and it is draining the possibility of any other music out of society as the ears that listen to it hear the same thing, aside from the words, for years on end.

Definitely something worth studying. How the hell has this managed to become a dominant force in what is broadly referred to as the popular music world?

The last time (as memory serves) categories or genres blurred leading to outrage was when Roger Ebert proclaimed that video games are not art (and by inference that cinema is art). Most of us didn’t really care one way or the other where some entertainment slots into a category, but gamers in particular were scandalized. In short, their own ox was gored. But when it came to video games as art, there were no racial undertones, so the sometimes heated debate was at least free of that scourge. Eventually, definitions were liberalized, Ebert acknowledged the opposing opinion (I don’t think he was ever truly convinced, but I honestly can’t remember — and besides, who cares?), and it all subsided.

The impulse to mark hard, discrete boundaries between categories and keep unlike things from touching is pretty foolish to me. It’s as though we’re arguing about the mashed potatoes and peas not infecting each other on the dinner plate with their cooties. Never mind that it all ends up mixed in the digestive tract before finally reemerging as, well, you know. Motivation to keep some things out is no doubt due to prestige and cachet, where the apparent interloper threatens to change the status quo somehow, typically infecting it with undesirable and/or impure elements. We recognize this fairly readily as in-group and out-group, an adolescent game that ramps up, for instance, when girls and boys begin to differentiate in earnest at the onset of puberty. Of course, in the last decade, so-called identitarians have been quite noisome about their tribal affiliations self-proclaimed identities, many falling far, far out of the mainstream, and have demanded they be taken seriously and/or granted status as a protected class.

All this extends well beyond the initial topic of musical or artistic styles and genres. Should be obvious, though, that we can’t escape labels and categories. They’re a basic part of cognition. If they weren’t, one would have to invent them at every turn when confronting the world, judging safe/unsafe, friend/foe, edible/inedible, etc. just to name a few binary categories. Complications multiply quickly when intermediary categories are present (race is the most immediate example, where most of us are mixtures or mutts despite whatever our outer appearance may be) or categories are blurred. Must we all then rush to restore stability to our understanding of the world by hardening our mental categories?