Thursday, October 31, 2013

Happy Halloween!

Kant Dracula
Get it?
Kant Dracula has a ghost story for you to share around the campfire tonight...
Astonishment that borders upon terror, the dread and the holy awe which seizes the observer at the sight of mountain peaks rearing themselves to heaven, deep chasms and streams raging therein, deep-shadowed solitudes that dispose one to melancholy meditations—this, in the safety in which we know ourselves to be, is not actual fear but only an attempt to feel fear by aid of the imagination, that we may feel the might of this faculty combining with the mind's repose the mental movement thereby excited, and being thus superior to internal nature—and therefore to external—so far as this can have any influence on our feeling of well-being. — Critique of Spooky Judgment

Sunday, October 27, 2013

In Nihilism We Trust

This is a repost. But really, who cares, right?

If Humans are Trusting Beings, What Does it Mean That We Have Become So Distrusting?

In my Introduction to Global Peace Studies class I recently assigned my students Noam Chomsky’s talk The Evil Scourge of Terrorism, wherein he lists crime after crime committed by the United States government—a war of terror in the name of “The War on Terror” that stretched from George W. Bush back to the Kennedy administration. My students, as often happens, took the article at face value and were shocked at the atrocities Chomsky listed. Yet when I performed my professorly duties of playing devil’s advocate and asked my students to consider how Bush and the others might respond to these allegations, how they might deny any criminality and further demand proof of these charges, the students immediately did a 180 and either took the government’s side against Chomsky or threw their hands up impotently, commenting on how this was why they didn’t watch the News. In response I asked them to break up into groups and try to figure out how to deal with situations like this, situations where they didn’t know who to believe, and though they officially came up with ideas like “keep an open mind” and “focus on the facts,” their unanimous unofficial answer was: trust no one.

This attitude of distrust is not unique to my students. It is hard not to look around classrooms, coffee shops, and computer screens without seeing distrust everywhere. It is hard not to feel nowadays as though anyone could claim anything about any issue or individual, and that these claims would get retweeted, liked, and whatever Pinterest users do before anyone could question the claim let alone bother to fact-check them. It is easy of course to write this off as just a by-product of the Information Age, of our having too much information without the ability to process it. But this answer only reveals a further problem: we are aware that the Internet makes it harder to know fact from fiction and yet we are becoming more and more dependent on the Internet for our information. Is this the result of our unknowingly living lives of contradiction, of preferring ease of use to the work of scrutiny, or is this instead a manifestation of something else, of something deeper, of something that the Internet has not instigated but rather has illuminated?

Try to find an image online of Wittgenstein and Descartes, and this is what you might get...

Trust and Distrust

When discussing the issue of trust with my students I often begin by asking them if they think of themselves as trusting, to which they almost always respond with a resounding “No.” Yet when I point out to them that they sat down on chairs without first checking them for missing screws; that they are sitting in a room full of strangers who they often have theirs back to; that they are listening to me without ever having asked for proof that I am the professor or that I even have a professor’s badge, they begin to realize that they are perhaps more trusting than they realized. When I go on to point out to them that such social conventions as shaking hands and clinking glasses to begin meals originated as ways to check our “friends” for weapons or for poison they further realize that trust goes deeper than what one believes and disbelieves as it could be said instead that trust structures our everyday lives. In other words, trust is fundamental to who we are.

For Aristotle, humans are social beings. But what does it mean to be social if we are not first and foremost trusting beings? Why speak if I do not trust that you’ll understand? Why congregate if I do not trust that it is safe to do so? Why even get up in the morning if I do not trust that it is in some way worth it? If therefore trust is so crucial to being human, then what does it mean to not trust?

It is one thing to not believe someone or something, to think that what someone says is not true or that what you see is fake, but it is something altogether different to have not-believing as an attitude, as a way of seeing the world. Indeed we cannot even imagine what it would be like to take up such an attitude, and thus when someone does claim to have done so, as Descartes famously did in his Meditations, it only takes a smart-ass, say a Wittgenstein, to dispell any such deep skepticism by daring Descartes to put his hand in the fire he claims to doubt will burn him.

Nonetheless there are those who, as Jean Améry famously put it, have lost their “trust in the world.” The key difference between Descartes’ distrust and Améry’s is that whereas the former invented his distrust as a method for dealing with credulity, the latter discovered his distrust while being tortured by the Gestapo. If trust is part of who we are then it is only by becoming who we are not that we can become distrustful. In other words, one cannot choose to be distrustful, but one can be made to be distrustful, a making that occurs in trauma.

If we are indeed distrustful today, then have we been traumatized?

He's the one who knocks, but why did you answer?

Nihilism Porn

There were only so many times I could be told that Breaking Bad was the most amazing show on television before I finally overcame my lack of desire to see Bryan Cranston as anything other than Hal/Tim Whatley and gave the show a go. Though it took a similar process for me to finally start watching The Wire, a show that I could not stop watching and immediately became obsessed with, I found instead that I not only did not want to keep watching Breaking Bad but that I had to force myself to go through the agony of watching more. From the acting to the storyline to the cinematography I can certainly see why so many would marvel at the show’s accomplishments, but at the same time I cannot get over what to me appears to be the core of the show, a core that I fear is actually what most of the audience is truly marveling at, the core that I will refer to as Nihilism Porn.

From episode to episode Cranston’s Walter White “broke bad,” but once the terminal cancer and fear for his family’s well-being was revealed to be a red herring as motivation, the true motivation of his descent seemed instead to be: I can, therefore I will. Likewise, the audience’s motivation for watching seemed to be: He can, therefore I will. Walt can let a girl die, I can watch. Walt can poison a child, I can watch. Walt can lie, I can watch. Walt can torture his wife, I can watch. Yet this worked both ways, for the writers of the show operated under a similar imperative: They can watch, therefore we will give them a Walt worth watching. To see Hal kill, to see Whatley destroy, is apparently what the audience wanted and it is definitely what the audience got.

I bring this up not to suggest that we have become distrustful because we have been traumatized by this television show, but rather that the success of the show reveals just how untraumatized we are. Death and destruction were not a cause for alarm but were a cause célèbre. If anything, this seemed to be the show’s point: We want to see a nice sitcom dad as a possible meth dealer, we want to see an annoying dentist as a possible crime kingpin. Why do we want these things? Because we’re desensitized to violence? Because we’re bored by sitcoms? Maybe it’s because we have not lost our faith, but rather have re-discovered it, a faith in He did, therefore I could.

I use “faith” here to underscore the possibility of seeing something like a religious devotion inherent to the followers of Walter White, the audience who has found faith in the idea of What Would Heisenberg Do? Much like What Would Jesus Do?, followers of WWHD see mild-mannered Walter White turned criminal mastermind Heisenberg as proof of another world, as proof that no matter how dark and dreary reality may be, no matter how little there is to be believe in in this world, there is nonetheless something to believe in, so long as one has faith in another world.

Nietzsche's a real scream...

Nihilistic Faith

“We can no longer conceal from ourselves what is expressed by all that willing which has taken its direction from the ascetic ideal: this hatred of the human, and even more of the animal, and more still of the material, this horror of the senses, of reason itself, this fear of happiness and beauty, this longing to get away from all appearance, change, becoming, death, wishing, from longing itself—all this means—let us dare to grasp it—a will to nothingness, an aversion to life, a rebellion against the most fundamental presuppositions of life; but it is and remains a will!… And, to repeat in conclusion what I said at the beginning: man would rather will nothingness than not will.” — Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals
Nietzsche is often seen as the philosopher of nihilism, so it is only fitting that he should be the one best-suited to helping us to connect these dots, to see the connection in our current culture of distrust and in our love of nihilist porn. As was seen in the comparison to Améry, it is not the case that we have been traumatized into becoming distrustful, but rather that we are closer to Descartes, that we are closer to having willed our distrust. But why would we do this?

If I may paraphrase Nietzsche here, a possible answer is that we would rather trust nothingness than not trust. We cannot help but be trustful beings, and yet, unlike Descartes, our response to our fear of credulity is not to withhold judgment until our intellect can catch up to our will, until we can be certain that we have found clear and distinct ideas, but rather to dive into judgment and willfully spread, retweet, meme-ify gossip faster than any intellect can process it.

It would therefore appear to be the case that it is not that we are in a crisis of no longer knowing who to trust, but rather a crisis of no longer caring about who is trustworthy.

So the next time you retweet some “breaking news,” ask yourself: Do I know this to be true? Do I even care?
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Friday, October 18, 2013

Philosophy and Propaganda

Cyborg Philosophy
For the students who love Donna Haraway, but just don't know it yet...

Rocket Science and Philosophy
I probably should have found out what this poster actually says...

Metropolis and Philosophy
At the very least they might go and watch Metropolis... 

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Saturday, October 12, 2013


"Buddy Cops in Space" wouldn't have been as catchy I suppose...
From A. O. Scott's "Between Heaven and Earth":
The script is, at times, weighed down by some heavy screenwriting clichés. Some are minor, like the fuel gauge that reads full until the glass is tapped, causing the arrow to drop. More cringe-inducing is the tragic back story stapled to Stone, a doctor on her first trip into orbit. We would care about her even without the haunting memory of a dead child, who inspires a maudlin monologue and a flight of orchestral bathos in Steven Price’s otherwise canny and haunting score.
A. O. Scott gave this movie a 5 out of 5, made it a "Critic's Pick," and yet, like many who similarly love and recommend the film, admits that the script is full of "screenwriting clichés" and that we would care about the characters even without their backstories.

What does it mean to like a movie but to essentially prefer to see it on mute?

Many of course compare Gravity to other sci-fi epics such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien, and yet neither of those films are better seen and not heard.  Ripley is a fully fleshed out character who spawned an entire genre of kick-ass female action leads.  Even HAL is a more fleshed out character than Sandra Bullock's Dr. Ryan Stone (who by the way refers to being a medical doctor and yet is found performing "surgery" on the Hubble Space Station for some reason) or George Clooney's Mission Commander Matt Kowalski (who was just one day from retirement, naturally).  Unlike those sci-fi epics, no one will be quoting Gravity, ever.

In fact, there are several times in the film when it seems like there could have been an interesting character moment, and instead the cliché is opted for, almost as if by necessity.  For example, at the moment when Clooney untethers himself from Bullock so that he can float off into the sunset (again, he was just so damn close to retirement!) and so she can survive, why not have Clooney's one-day-from-retirement-cliché go against type and struggle to survive?  Why not have Bullock's rookie-with-a-sob-story-past go against type and untether Clooney to save herself?  In much the same way that it is ridiculous to have a doctor fixing a telescope in space, and to have an astronaut repeatedly explain to a doctor how oxygen and carbon dioxide work, it is ridiculous how cliché that scene was handled (with Kowalski's line about the sunlight in the Ganges pushing the scene from derivative to almost full-on satire of such grizzled veteran sacrifices).
Wiggum would've been a
welcome addition to Gravity
Financial planner: You haven't set aside any plans for the future.  
Wiggum: Well, you know how it is with cops. I'll be shot three days before retirement. In the business, we call it retirony 
Planner: Well, what if you don't get shot?  
Wiggum: What a terrible thing to say! Oh, look! You made my wife cry!
But what if the cliché is actually the point?  For all of its technical ingenuity and aesthetic grandeur, this movie is still basically an action/adventure movie with cardboard characters moving from one disaster to the next.  Would we enjoy the film as much however if the characters were less cardboard and more real?  Perhaps we have reached a point as consumers of culture that we are desperate not to see compelling and complicated characters overcoming adversity, but rather to see avatars who we can fully invest ourselves into so that we can see ourselves overcoming adversity.  The more bland Clooney and Bullock come across the better: all the more room for your personality to fill the void the boilerplate script left for you.  In much the same way that you might have been staring at the Earth hoping to see your house, or focusing on religious references hoping to pick out your personal belief-system, so too can you make of Stone whatever part of your personality you'd most like to identify with so that you can leave the theater knowing that you too could've made it.

In other words, the most telling line of the movie might have been when Kowalski needled Stone about being named "Ryan," and Stone of course responding that her dad wanted a boy, just as the audience might have been wanting a male hero rather than a female one (the hair cut helps expand the opportunities for identifying with Stone too, as does all the confusion about eye color).

So go see the movie and enjoy watching it, but I have a feeling that your favorite character in the movie might just be you.
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Sunday, October 6, 2013

Bob Dylan's Augustinian Dreams

From Bob Dylan's Writings and Drawings
I dreamed I saw St. Augustine
Alive as you or me
Tearing through these quarters
In the utmost misery
With a blanket underneath his arm
And a coat of solid gold
Searching for the very souls
Whom already have been sold
“Arise, arise,” he cried so loud
In a voice without restraint
“Come out, ye gifted kings and queens
And hear my sad complaint
No martyr is among ye now
Whom you can call your own
So go on your way accordingly
But know you’re not alone”
I dreamed I saw St. Augustine
Alive with fiery breath
And I dreamed I was amongst the ones
That put him out to death
Oh, I awoke in anger
So alone and terrified
I put my fingers against the glass

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Friday, October 4, 2013

Tyranny of the Majority

Shutdown Howl
Howling into the Void
From Anthony Zurcher, "Shutdown Headache for Republican Speaker John Boehner":
The rebellious faction hails from solidly conservative, mostly rural areas across the country. They've been called the "weird caucus" by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the "suicide caucus" by Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, in reference to a disregard for their party's survival. They sometimes refer to themselves as "wacko birds", adopting as their own the derisive label given to them by Republican Senator John McCain.
They "represent an America where the population is getting whiter, where there are few major cities, where Obama lost the last election in a landslide, and where the Republican Party is becoming more dominant and more popular," he wrote. "Meanwhile, in national politics, each of these trends is actually reversed."
From Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America:
If ever the free institutions of America are destroyed, that event may be attributed to the omnipotence of the majority, which may at some future time urge the minorities to desperation and oblige them to have recourse to physical force. Anarchy will then be the result, but it will have been brought about by despotism. 
Jefferson also said: "The executive power in our government is not the only, perhaps not even the principal, object of my solicitude. The tyranny of the legislature is really the danger most to be feared, and will continue to be so for many years to come. The tyranny of the executive power will come in its turn, but at a more distant period."
Our democratic chickens have come home to roost.  Contrary to the calls of to blame John Boehner and the Tea Party for shutting down the government, it's time to look in the mirror and realize that our wounds are self-inflicted.

What appears to be the hostile takeover of the rich white minority of sore-loser Republicans is not a coup, but rather democracy in action, the democracy that we have allowed to be dominated not by the Ted Cruz's and Michelle Bachman's of the world, but by the scourge of gerrymandering.  At a time when the Internet is allowing us evermore freedom to evolve beyond the borders of districts we are instead devolving into "wacko" districts to be ruled by "wacko birds."  When this works in our particular party's favor, we of course champion this anti-democratic power grab that our Democracy allows for, but now when it is seemingly the other party who has taken advantage of this system-gaming, we are outraged victims.

Unsurprisingly, The Daily Show argued this quite convincingly just the other night (though unfortunately they did not focus on how this isn't a Republican problem, but a problem of the current state of our Democracy as a whole):

So will we wake up to the true scourge—gerrymandering—and focus on putting a stop to the ghettoization of America or will we instead reinforce this ghettoization by continuing to blame the minority for tyrannizing the majority?
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Thursday, October 3, 2013

America the Basket Case

Furlough Prison Blues
Furlough Prison Blues
Perhaps this doesn’t matter much to American voters. They might not realize how closely the rest of the world—their economies as well as their media and popular culture—follow, react to, and are affected by the ups and downs of US political life. But they do. And right now, they look at the stalemate in Washington the same way they look at the periodic gun massacres that afflict the United States: with a bafflement that America, mighty America, for so long the most innovative, creative, energetic society on the planet, cannot solve problems that smaller, poorer, feebler countries cracked long ago. Americans might not realize it, but this shutdown, like the gun epidemic, reduces US influence in the world. It makes nations, and individuals, who still want to regard America as a model see it instead as a basket case.
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Vote Anything

Vote Anything
"In your Kingdom, the light (of reason), the heat (of principled debate)..."

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Cyber War is Here

Cyber Kitchener
Will you answer Cyber Kitchener's call? the McAfee report points out, the cyber cold war is already underway, and it will only escalate as more nations develop cyber capabilities. While Britain’s announcement may make online threats more likely in the short term, it will also provide the first test of whether offensive cyber capabilities can serve as a deterrent measure against future attacks. And if other countries follow Britain’s lead, it will bring cyber security policy out into the open, aligning public debate with the realities of modern war.
From Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., "'Cyberwar' is Over Hyped: It Ain't War Til Someone Dies":
Healey doesn’t think much of some of the ethical and strategic choices the US has made, either. “I’m so against things like Stuxnet [and] how aggressive the NSA has been,” he said at Brookings. “We’ve got glass infrastructure and we shouldn’t be throwing stones.” Indeed, Healey argued that the military has grown too dominant in cybersecurity policy, which has been “militarized” in large part because of over-hyped fears of cyberwar.
For several years now we have been hearing whispers of a coming "cyber war," and it appears that Britain has moved from whispers to shouting, having announced earlier this week the formation of a UK Cyber Command.  Certainly they are not the first to form such a unit, but as Wyler points out, there is something about the brazenness of their announcement that makes the UK's actions seemingly different from those of the US, China, and other cyber-armed countries.

Yet, as Freedberg Jr. puts it pithily, we are likely overly hasty in our proclamations, as "it ain't war til someone dies," and there certainly appears to be a big difference between what military software can do and what military hardware can do.

How then should we view this situation, as one of bellicose escalation or as one of empty posturing?

Perhaps William James can be of use here.  As James points out in his "The Moral Equivalent of War" essay from 1910,
It may even reasonably be said that the intensely sharp preparation for war by the nations is the real war, permanent, unceasing; and that the battles are only a sort of public verification of the mastery gained during the "peace"-interval.
Should we then think, contrary to those who see cyber "war" as a misnomer, that in fact the "preparation" is the cyberwar?  In other words, war and violence should not be thought of as defined and delimited by body counts as Thomas Rid and Steven Pinker would suggest, for the atmosphere surrounding warfare can itself be violent, as James is here suggesting, and as Frantz Fanon argued in his The Wretched of the Earth.  A cyber army need not ever take a life in order to have a violent impact on life, even if that impact were to only be imagined by the hysteria over cyberwar rather than felt by the declaration of a cyberwar.

The talk of cyberwar is leading us to less and less trust the internet as we each day become more and more dependent on the internet, creating a state of existential anxiety wherein our cyberurges are the cyberweapons of each of our personal cyberwars.  In other words, cyberwar is real and it is already here.

Cyber Daddy
Is this what you want your children asking you one day?
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