The Girl from Ipanema Takes On Health-Care Reform

Is there any music more democratically egalitarian than elevator music? It seems to me that any other form of music privileges some at the expense of others--classical music, rap, rock'n'roll, even pop or "top 40," each of these has its demographic, its fan base, to whom it will appeal. The playing of such musics in any space will, then, bring more enjoyment to this demographic, while bringing no pleasure--or even displeasure--to the rest. It would seem that the only way to be genuinely egalitarian, then, would be to play elevator music: the only genre of music that has no demographic, that offends everyone, that is guaranteed to bring no more pleasure to your neighbor than it does to you.

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    Fine Young Cannibals: "Ever Fallen in Love?"

Inbetween Days

Goth turned 30 this week--a strange position indeed for the strange subculture. To mark the occasion, I thought I'd try to put down some thoughts I've been having over the last few years about the philosophical significance of goth, a subculture that has been a constant companion over the years of my own philosophical development.

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One last note, speaking of goth: A reminder that I've been doing a comic strip for Morbid Outlook called "Cemetery Polka," and strip #4 should go up online later this month...!
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    Santigold, "My Superman"

I'm So Bored with the U.S.A.

Now we say that the function of a [kind of thing]--of a harpist, for instance--is the same in kind as the function of an excellent individual of the kind--of an excellent harpist, for instance. And the same is true without qualification in every case, if we add to the function the superior achievement in accord with the virtue; for the function of the harpist is to play the harp, and the function of the good harpist to play it well.
--Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1098a10
One hears the question a lot: Is the President doing a good job?

I recently overheard the following exhange in the faculty lounge at one of the schools where I teach:

Faculty Member #1: ...So what do you actually think of Obama?

Faculty Member #2: I think he's really naive.

FM1: Wha--naive?! The guy is a constitutional law scholar! What more can you ask for in a President's qualifications?!

FM2: Exactly, he's a law scholar; the guy doesn't know anything about economics!

These two gentlemen are, of course, arguing at cross purposes. But regardless of whether either or both of them is correct, it raises an interesting question: What is the President's job?

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    Depeche Mode, "Lilian"

Being and Amok Time

In growing accustomed to the idea of events happening in an ever-continuing present, the reader loses track of the fact that they should develop according to the dictates of time. Losing consciousness of it, he forgets the problems which are at its base, that is, the existence of freedom, the possibility of planning, the necessity of carrying plans out, the sorrow that such planning entails, the responsibility that it implies, and, finally, the existence of an entire human community whose progressiveness is based on making plans.
--Umberto Eco, "The Myth of Superman"

There is a strange theme running through geek culture these days: predestination. It's a perennial theme in fantasy, of course--either a prophecy must be fulfilled (the current example: Harry Potter, whose entire life and seven book series is dominated by a prophecized encounter with running villain Voldemort), or divine intervention guides or influences the protagonist's actions and choices (as with the show Reaper--most notably in the recent season 2 finale, in which Sam's season-long plan is undone by the timely intervention of an angel). But it is a theme cropping up with increasing frequency in both the super-hero and sci-fi genres as well, in the form of the prequel (for lack of a better term--in short, stories designed to show the histories or "back stories" of iconic characters, to show how they got to be who they are, etc.). The recent trend arguably began with Marvel's Ultimate line (relaunches more than prequels, but already with some of the elements we'll be dealing with below), but was certainly carried forward by the early success of the Smallville television series, and more recently the show (tragically cancelled in its prime) Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. (More examples could of course be mentioned; for example, a prequel series in the true sense, Star Trek: Enterprise...)

As far as it goes, this is only moderately interesting: it's one, currently popular, theme among many (or at least several). But what is really striking is that all three major, geek, blockbuster movie releases this summer have been 'prequels': X-Men Origins: Wolverine; Star Trek; and now, finally, Terminator: Salvation.

Of course, you will object: of these three, only Wolverine was a true prequel. Star Trek was officially billed as a series relaunch, and Terminator: Savlation is officially billed as a sequel. Allow me, then, to say a few words about these most recent two--for in doing so, I'll also be able to get to the heart of what I think is at stake in this newly-popular geek theme. What follows, then, will be a (lengthy, sorry!) combination of multi-movie review and rumination on the philosophy of history...

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    Peter Schilling, "Major Tom (Völlig losgelöst)"

Starf*ckers (We Are the Dollars & Cents)

Available as of today, at a bookstore near you (or, at least, near your web browser...):

...In which you will find my very first published essay, "Why A Rock Band in a Desolate Time?"

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Keep an eye out for the book, then: Radiohead and Philosophy: Fitter, Happier, More Deductive. You'll find yours truly buried deep in the second half of the book. If you get a chance to flip back and give it a read, I welcome any and all feedback/thoughts/complaints.
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    Radiohead, "Life In A Glasshouse"

To Have and To Hold

phi-los-o-phy [fi-los-uh-fee] –noun, plural -phies.

  1. the rational investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge, or conduct.

  2. any of the three branches, namely natural philosophy, moral philosophy, and metaphysical philosophy, that are accepted as composing this study.

  3. a system of philosophical doctrine: the philosophy of Spinoza.

  4. the critical study of the basic principles and concepts of a particular branch of knowledge, esp. with a view to improving or reconstituting them: the philosophy of science.

  5. a system of principles for guidance in practical affairs.

  6. a philosophical attitude, as one of composure and calm in the presence of troubles or annoyances.

Who knows what dreadfully clever internet denizen first came up with it, but there's a saying that goes around, summing up the 'commonsense' idea of what philosophy (and, for that matter, religion) is: "Philosophy is questions that can't be answered; Religion is answers that can't be questioned." This is, in fact, often the pre-understanding of philosophy my students have when they enter my intro classes as well: Philosophy is about asking a lot of questions, most of which can't be answered. Leaving aside, for the moment, the way this caricature of philosophy works to make the discipline seem so irrelevant, let's instead notice something odd about the other way the word "philosophy" gets used in common parlance: "My philosophy about this is..." "What's your business philosophy?" "I have a philosophy about cooking I'd like to share with you..." Etc. From
Philosophy is the foundation to preventing mediocrity. Most people consider philosophy useful only in the realm of morals. Is an action right or wrong and how will it affect my eternal soul? The dictionary definition of philosophy is a set of beliefs, principles, or aims, underlying somebody's practice or conduct. A philosophy can be a guide to growing your business. By defining what you consider important, you can decide what projects to tackle and which to leave to others.
Notice how the word "philosophy" is used here to indicate, not a set of questions (answerable or no), but a set of answers. Furthermore, though both 'accepted' definitions of the word "philosophy," these two uses have no relation to each other in common parlance; nobody talks about "doing" business philosophy, any more than they talk about "philosophical answers" to questions. Philosophy as a process is dismissed as irrelevant (questions that can't be answered); philosophy as a result is a dogmatic basis for decision making. Once you have the latter, all the more need to dismiss the former!

This in itself is an interesting topic for discussion...but today I'm actually interested in the above as an example of an even more prevalent tendancy: the crystallization of dynamic processes into fixed objects or results. Terry Eagleton has already noted this same phenomenon with respect to "-ologies":
There is a peculiar feature about words that end in 'ology'; '-ology' means the science or study of some phenomenon; but by a curious process of inversion 'ology' words often end up meaning the phenomenon studied rather than the systematic knowledge of it. Thus 'methodology' means the study of method, but is commonly used nowadays to mean method itself. To say you are examining Max Weber's methodology probably means you are considering the methods he uses, rather than his ideas about them. To say that human biology is not adapted to large doses of carbon monoxide means that our bodies are not so adapted, not the study of them. 'The geology of Peru' can refer to the physical features of that country as much as to the scientific examinations of them. And the American tourist who remarked to a friend of mine on the 'wonderful ecology' of the West of Ireland just meant that the scenery was beautiful. (63)
Furthermore, etymology is helpful here in at least allowing us to see that this is a process of transformation, and not simply a bunch of words that happen to simultaneously mean more than one thing; -ology is from the Greek logos, which--as Eagleton mentions--refers to a study, discourse, or organization of something; hence the process, the discipline of study, is the primary meaning, with the sedimented "object" meaning following sometime after. Similarly, the word philosophy comes from the Greek words philein and sofia, literally meaning "the love or pursuit of wisdom"; philosophy as a pursuit is the primary meaning, to which philosophy as an already-attained 'wisdom' is an appended definition.

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    INXS, "Suicide Blonde"

Knowing is Half the Battle

Men. And how will you enquire, Socrates, into that which you do not know? What will you put forth as the subject of enquiry? And if you find what you want, how will you ever know that this is the thing which you did not know?

Soc. I know, Meno, what you mean; but just see what a tiresome dispute you are introducing. You argue that man cannot enquire either about that which he knows, or about that which he does not know; for if he knows, he has no need to enquire; and if not, he cannot; for he does not know the, very subject about which he is to enquire.
--Plato, Meno
While I have always been among those who thought Socrates' solution to Meno's paradox was unsatisfying (more on this in a moment), I am yet convinced that the paradox itself is essentially correct. That is: when dealing with theoretical knowledge of reality, (a) there is no self-obvious place to begin, nor any "facts" simply waiting to be used; and (b) there is no way of knowing--even should we arrive at "the right" theory--that we have found what we are looking for.

But of course, Meno offers up this paradox in an attempt to bring the conversation to a halt (a Samson strategy; if Meno can't win the conversation, he'll pull down the pillars and take Socrates with him...), and Socrates is right to deny the implications Meno draws from the paradox. We can of course inquire into that which we do not know; indeed, we must. However, the paradox would seem to limit us to only two types of response.

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    Sinead O'Connor, "I Am Stretched On Your Grave"

Yogis of the World, Unite!

What we have been seeing for the last thirty years or so, those huge music halls where the music can never be deafening enough, inevitably brings to mind those states of near trance, of loss of identity, a lack of differentiation, attempting to reach beyond signification. People live in the instant, feel penetrated by the music, the sheer amount of decibels is a sort of real violation of one's physical integrity, bodies mix in a diffuse sexual encounter, joints circulate--but that is not important. These are all things on which to lean, through which to return to a situation that seems to achieve a total meaning and at the same time precedes any articulated meaning. . . . [A]ttempts to do Oriental meditation are very much the same thing in indivuduals who despair in this depersonalized, privatized Western world.
--C. Castoriadis, "Psyche and Education," in Figures of the Thinkable (170-1)
In its original form, yoga was developed within Hinduism as a practice directed toward the attainment of Enlightenment; it thus involved a project of self-mastery, surrender to God, and world-withdrawl, directed toward the realization that the world is illusion, and that self and Other (atman and brahman) are ultimately the same. In other words, we can see the basic structure of stoicism, and we can roughly characterize yoga in its original form as a manifestation of what Hegel calls the Unhappy Consciousness. Note that this term need not imply that yoga is--or ever was--a morose or depressed practice; the yogic ideal of transcendence as the dissolution of self within the love of Krishna still amounts to the renounciation of the physical world in favor of an eternal, transcendent, perfect world of spirit. And the renounciation of the world as illusion or "sport" is still a stoic project, no matter how couched in the terms of love, joy, or kundalini.

Thus, in its original form, yoga was essentially an apolitical project--that is, essentially unconcerned with questions of social justice, democracy, economy, etc. This is not to say that yoga--or any apolitical lifestyle--has no political ramifications; quite the opposite! But, while we might characterize the effects of such a practice as politically regressive, we would have to call the project itself apolitical, and even antipolitical.

However, as yoga has migrated to--and gained in popularity within--the Western world, and most especially America, over the last few decades, two major "hybrid" strands of yoga have emerged. The first is what we might call "yoga as exercise routine"; that is, a yogic practice cut away from its metaphysical context, and offered to Westerners as yet another fitness program. This strand preserves the essentially apolitical nature of yoga, but in such a way that it no longer carries with it a message of asceticism. Indeed, within a First World capitalist economy, yoga's original ascetic practice would necessarily take on a politically critical character, and we can understand the "exercise routine" approach as a necessary step to maintain yoga's apolitical orientation. Furthermore, this strand of yoga is not limited to the "yoga light" classes offered at most gyms; the yoga classes we find at many yoga studios, which boil the Hindu philosophy down to empty, warmed-over hippie spiritual expressions ("love for the universe"; "finding your inner goddess"; etc.) are still largely of this kind. The spiritualism-light offered in such contexts is yet another manifestation of Western "apolitical" ideology; a response to modern alienation through regressive withdrawl into the Unhappy Consciousness, albeit in such a way that the capitalist economy of desire can still function.

The second--and more interesting--hybrid form of yoga to emerge, however, is somewhat different. Instead of simply divorcing yoga from any explicit metaphysics, there have been several attempts to essentially recreate yoga within a Western context. The result has tended to change yoga from a practice of world withdrawl into a practice of world engagement.

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    Duran Duran, "A View to a Kill"

Hackers and Philosophers

Why, anybody can have a brain. That's a very mediocre commodity. Every pusillanimous creature that crawls on the Earth or slinks through slimy seas has a brain. Back where I come from, we have universities, seats of great learning, where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts and with no more brains than you have. But they have one thing you haven't got: a diploma.
--The Wizard of Oz (as portrayed by Frank Morgan)
Our society has very few public intellectuals. I have long lamented this fact, but I should be careful to immediately add that this does not mean that our society has few intellectuals at all; a public intellectual is not simply an intellectual, but an intellectual able to gain public access--an intellectual to whom the public wants (is willing?) to listen.

As a sociological overgeneralization, we could say that, in any society, the public intellectuals tend to come from the dominant intellectual field in that society. And so, in the Enlightenment, the public intellectuals were philosophers, scientists, and authors. ("And" in this case is a true conjunction: Enlightenment public intellectuals tended to be all of the above, not simply any one of the above...) America, over at least the last sixty years, has been a society dominated by the sciences; our public intellectuals--few and far between, to be sure--have thus followed suit. (Noam Chomsky might seem like the obvious counterexample; and yet, remember, his actual "field" is linguistics!) In the mid-twentieth century, physics was the dominant field; and so our public intellectuals were people like Richard P. Feynman, Albert Einstein, and--to a lesser extent--Stephen Hawking. Over the last thirty years or so, physics has been slowly eclipsed by biology within the hard sciences; and so our more recent public intellectuals have been people like Richard Dawkins. (Yes--I know, he's British. And yet his popularity is not constrained to the British Isles; in an age when America is outsourcing so much of its labor, should we be at all surprised that we're outsourcing our public intellectuals as well?)

While biology has certainly not yet been knocked from its position of dominance, especially within the inner circile of "hard sciences," there is a newer trend in America over the last ten years or so: More and more of our (still very few in number!) public intellectuals are hailing from the field(s) of computer science. Witness last year's best-selling "The Last Lecture," a guide to life, the universe, and everything by Randy Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon. The latest--for me, anyway--in this new trend is Paul Graham, programmer/venture capitalist (founder of Viaweb) and essayist-at-large.

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    David Bowie, "Little Wonder"