Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Dystopian Future of the Past is Now!

So far the scientists have not tasted it, but they believe the breakthrough could lead to sausages and other processed products being made from laboratory meat in as little as five years’ time. (Times Online, 9/29/09)
Some Dutch scientists backed by a sausage manufacturer have grown "a soggy form of pork" in a petri dish.  Where to begin?

Leaving aside a mostly silly dislike I have for the Netherlands (Rembrandt and Van Gogh...Awesome; pirate capital of consumption and Infernal setting of Camus' The Fall...not awesome), I think this begins with Chicken Little.

In 1952, Frederick Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth wrote The Space Merchants, a novel I've been meaning to re-read.  It's sort of a satire of consumer-advertising culture, prescient in lots of ways, that follows Mitchell Courtenay, a future-day Don Draper, as he descends from the halls of Madison Avenue power to the dystopian subterranea of "Luna City" or something like that.  Anyway, the thing I remember most about the novel is when Mitch is escorted deep beneath a food-processing plant by a worker who is secretly also a member of the conservationist, dissident underground:
I asked about the apparently immense weight of the ceiling.  "Concrete and lead.  It shields cosmic rays.  Sometimes a Gallina goes cancer."  He spat.  "No good to eat for people.  You got to burn it all if you don't catch it real fast and--" He swung his glittering slicer in a screaming arc to show me what he meant by "catch."
He swung open a door.  "This is her nest," he said proudly.  I looked and gulped.
The "Gallina" (AKA Chicken Little) is a 100-ton mound of growing flesh, fed from nutrient tubes and pruned by Mexicans with light sabers for general consumption by the people of the moon.

Now Space Merchants is undoubtedly a more sophisticated satire than I recall, but I remember being repulsed by the very idea of Chicken Little when I was younger.  Some kind of blob of meat, fed with tubes and and prone to cancer?  So unnatural and alien, thought I.  But, to quote Augustine, such a fool I then was.

According to a PETA rep quoted in the article, "if meat is no longer a piece of a dead animal, there's no ethical objection."  So for someone who likes the taste of meat but draws some sort of line between animative and vegatative souls, this laboratory pork potentially solves a lot of problems.

But in fact, I'm not entirely sure what line or lines I draw.  I eat most of the usual meats, generally without compunction.  (Although I have been staying away from shrimp for the last several months, purportedly in support of mangrove swamps, but also because my brother once referred to them as the cockroaches of the sea, which maybe means that my ethics are always really aesthetic judgments in disguise).  Occasionally I try to determine a line.  Would I eat a dolphin?  Blue whale?  Elephant? Monkey? Mountain gorilla?  What if s/he knows sign language?  What about a friend of mine who died in an accident?  If something wanted to eat me after I died, I don't think I would mind.  Either that or worms anyway.  Is there a cognitive/non-cognitive line I would draw if I could decide what cognition was?  

It's probably true that the more like a human being an organism is, the more distasteful would be the idea of me eating it, which isn't to say that there's anything natural about this distaste, but I wonder if whatever explains that distaste might also explain the uncanny valley?  On the other hand, I also don't want to eat a bowl of spiders.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Quote for the Week

The second part of the Dexter/Raskolnikov comparison is going to wait a bit, but here's something to keep us occupied and sort of on target:
The system in which the sovereign mind imagined itself transfigured, has its primal history in the pre-mental, the animal life of the species.  Predators get hungry, but pouncing on their prey is difficult and often dangerous; additional impulses may be needed for the beast to dare it.  These impulses and the unpleasantness of hunger fuse into rage at the victim, a rage whose expression in turn serves the end of frightening and paralyzing the victim.  In the advance to humanity this is rationalized by projection.  The “rational animal” with an appetite for his opponent is already fortunate enough to have a superego and must find a reason.  The more completely his actions follow the law of self-preservation, the less can he admit the primacy of that law to himself and to others; if he did, his laboriously attained status of a zoon politikon would lose all credibility.

The animal to be devoured must be evil.  The sublimation of this anthropological schema extends all the way to epistemology.  Idealism—most explicitly Fichte—gives unconscious sway to the ideology that the not-I, l’autrui, and finally all that reminds us of nature is inferior, so the unity of the self-preserving thought may devour it without misgivings.  This justifies the principle of the thought as much as it increases the appetite.  The system is the belly turned mind, and rage is the mark of each and every idealism.  It disfigures even Kant’s humanism and refutes the aura of higher and nobler things in which he knew how to garb it.  The view of man in the middle is akin to misanthropy: leave nothing unchallenged.  The august inexorability of the moral law was this kind of rationalized rage at nonidentity; nor did the liberalistic Hegel do better with the superiority of his bad conscience, dressing down those who refused homage to the speculative concept, the hypostasis of the mind.  Nietzsche’s liberating act, a true turning point of Western thought and merely usurped by others later, was to put such mysteries into words.  A mind that discards rationalization—its own spell—ceases by its self-reflection to be the radical evil that irks it in another.

Adorno, “Idealism as Rage,” Negative Dialectics, p. 22-3, my emphasis

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Raskolnikov and Dexter, part 1

We're currently working our way through Crime and Punishment in one of the classes I'm teaching, and we spent almost the whole of the last class working through Raskolnikov's theory of the "extraordinary man."  In the fifth chapter of Part 3, smack dab in the middle of the book, Porfiry (the man investigating the pawnbroker’s murder) cunningly gets Raskolnikov talking about an article he had written as a student, in which he distinguishes between the common, obedient mass of humanity and "those who have the gift or talent of speaking a new word in their environment."1 

The man with such a gift, argues Raskolnikov, is almost always judged a criminal by his contemporaries, though he “has a right...that is, not an official right, but his own right, to allow his conscience to...step over certain obstacles, and then only in the event that the fulfillment of his idea--sometimes perhaps salutary for the whole of mankind--calls for it." 2

Sort of by surprise, I presented them with an overly-reductive summary of Alain Badiou’s little book on ethics.  For Badiou, we are not born “subjects.”  We are simply Homo sapiens, a species of animal, and animal behavior is amoral—it obeys certain “natural” laws but it would be inaccurate to describe any of their actions as good or evil; however, when an animal (not necessarily a human being) experiences  what Badiou terms a “truth-event,” it then becomes the subject of a truth, something more than animal. 

Now truths (and these are subjective “truths” we’re talking about) come in four different flavors for Badiou, which strikes me as a little arbitrary or Aristotelian or something, but those flavors are Art, Love, Politics, and Science.  Not every animal is going to become the subject of a truth, but you might have one that realizes that it is in love with someone else, or another that realizes that the earth revolves around the sun, or another yet to whom it occurs that the history of the world is the history of class struggle.

A truth-event speaks a new word and hands down a new law, and the subject of a truth, like Raskolnikov’s extraordinary man, must remain faithful to his or her truth—must fulfill his or her idea—or pretend it never happened…and this alone—infidelity to truth—is evil, for Badiou.  

So anyway, throughout this class, my brain kept echoing the phrase “an idea transcended into life” over and over again.  An idea transcended into life…where have I heard that?  I resisted the urge to say it out loud.  An idea transcended into life. Was it Nietzsche?  No, don’t be an idiot.  An idea transcended into life.  It’s related to what I’m talking about but why does my brain keep repeating it like that?

I soldiered on.  I answered their questions and corrected their misunderstandings.  One student seemed to find the claim that human beings are animals very insulting.  Another student jumped in and made my counter-argument for me.  And if I’m any judge, the class session turned out to be extremely productive as far as situating the novel in the proper philosophical context was concerned.  But it wasn’t until long after the class, on the bus ride home, that I remembered where I’d heard that line.

It was from Dexter.

Stay tuned for when I compare Dexter to Raskolnikov and explain why even though I’ve never really liked the ending of Crime and Punishment, I understand why it had to end the way it did, and why I think Dexter, despite how much I continue to enjoy watching it, may have jumped the shark.

1 Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. Vintage Classics. Trans. Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.  p. 260.
2 Ibid. p. 259

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Men shall learn wisdom, by affliction schooled*

I was disappointed to read the following in Jonathan Turley's Oct. 19 op-ed in USA Today, via Radley Balko:
Around the world, free speech is being sacrificed on the altar of religion. Whether defined as hate speech, discrimination or simple blasphemy, governments are declaring unlimited free speech as the enemy of freedom of religion. This growing movement has reached the United Nations, where religiously conservative countries received a boost in their campaign to pass an international blasphemy law. It came from the most unlikely of places: the United States.
But I was relieved to read the following today at the Washington Post, via Little Green Footballs, via Jeffrey Goldberg:

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton criticized on Monday an attempt by Islamic countries to prohibit defamation of religions, saying such policies would restrict free speech.

"Some claim that the best way to protect the freedom of religion is to implement so-called anti-defamation policies. . . . I strongly disagree," Clinton said. "The protection of speech about religion is particularly important since persons of different faiths will inevitably hold divergent views on religious questions."

Nothing too complicated at work here. Just two fairly non-committal comments by Obama administration officials about a non-binding UN resolution transformed by the medium of the press into the following seeming contradiction: when faced with the mutually exclusive choice between blasphemy and censorship, the Obama administration sides with both against both.

This reminds me of a wide-ranging essay I read (skimmed) about two years ago by Slavoj Zizek, "Tolerance as Ideological Category," in which he attempts to wrestle with the "impasse of tolerating intolerance":

Liberalist multiculturalism preaches tolerance between cultures, while making it clear that true tolerance is fully possible only in the individualist Western culture, and thus legitimizes even military interventions as an extreme mode of fighting the other's intolerance...
(I.e. if there's one thing I can't stand, it's intolerance!) It's a fascinating essay, but I'm going to give it short-shrift and boil the conclusion to this: "the particular ethnic substance, our 'life-world,' which resists universality, is made of habits," (emphasis mine) and:
[t]his obscene underground of habits is what is really difficult to change, which is why the motto of every radical emancipatory politics is the same as the quote from Virgil that Freud chose as the exergue for his Interpretations of Dreams: Acheronta movebo - dare to move the underground!
Zizek, in this essay at least, seems still to consider humanity a universal a featureless remnant derived from the subtraction of particular differences (humanity is the nothing left when one subtracts from the American man the habits of his American-ness and male-ness), but it strikes me, and perhaps Zizek would agree, that humanity is also a habit and that the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness would not seem so inalienable had I not learned them by rote. And perhaps, instead of horror and guilt at the news of Lakhdar Boumediene's treatment at Guantanamo Bay I should feel something else. Because it turns out that wisdom, if not information, is the fruit of torture.
"I'm an animal? I'm not human?"
You're welcome.

*from Agamemnon, by Aeschylus

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

When Robot-Hell is Full, Will the Robot-Dead Walk the Earth?

I've done such an excellent job keeping up with this adventure, haven't I? Last post was in March. What have I done all summer and a good part of the fall? Some stuff, to be sure. But what can I say? The will-to-nothing is strong in me, and I think I should read more Schopenhauer.

Anyway, I came across an abstract of a decade-old essay recently posted by the author at On the Human. The essay is William G. Lycan's "Qualitative Experience in Machines," which performs a two-fold sort of thought-experiment comparing human beings and machines. (He refers to those who maintain essential boundaries between the two as "chauvinists," which is fun.) But the gist of the experiment involves Harry, a flawless human simulator, and Henrietta, a human who has been gradually, piece by piece, had her organic parts replaced with inorganic parts until no flesh is left.

It is fairly uncontroversial to me to suggest that the differences between humans and machines are only accidental (this is not meant as a slight against Lycan). But I found the conclusion of the essay

She [Henrietta] started out as a normal human being but was gradually turned into a machine. Did she go from being a living organism to being non-living, inanimate? In that case, if she had been alive and then ceased to live, she died, and obsequies are in order. It would be both hard and easy to make her funeral arrangements: Hard, because we would first have to persuade her that she was dead and that services should be held at all; she might resist that suggestion fairly indignantly, especially when we got around to the question of burial vs. cremation. But then easier, because we would not have to guess posthumously at her wishes; we could just ask her what hymns she wanted, whether there should be a eulogy or a general sermon, and so forth, right up till the last minute. I must say I think I would enjoy attending that funeral; I am not so sure that Henrietta would, herself.
A classic reductio ad absurdum, I suppose. Except that I've been coming around to the position that what makes aesthetic thinking different from other (more proletarian...pardon me if I just scoffed all over you) thinking is it's relationship to death, whether that relationship take the form of attraction or repulsion.

Certainly a machine could develop to experience 'qualia' but could it experience tragedy? Which, if un-conceiving the subject we also un-anticipate the inevitability of its death, is also to ask, can we [sic]? Tragicomedy, a la Beckett, maybe?

I'm in the middle of reading a longish story by Stanislaw Lem, "Tale of the Three Storytelling Machines of King Genius," which has a 1001 Arabian Nights structure sort of structure to it which is relevant to the point I'm trying to make as far as the connection between narrative and survival is concerned, but the reason I bring it up is because in the middle of one story within a story within the story, robotic organisms, acting out a revenge fantasy against a sort of robot Marx who died over a hundred years earlier (he suggested they all wire themselves together serially rather than in parallel), derive the algorithm (soul) of robot Marx from his writings and reconstitute him in a new body regularly in order to beat him to death once more.

Well, I don't know. My thoughts have become muddled again. I don't know what I'm anxious about. Henrietta can always pretend she did die, and that would be just as good, I think.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Quote for the Week

And are we chosen out of all earth's children
To perish in the last catastrophe
Of a disjointed universe? Are we
To see the world's end come?
A cruel fate brought us to birth, if we
Have lived to lose the Sun, or if our sins
Have driven him away.
But we must not complain, nor fear;
Too fond of life is he who would not die
When all the world dies with him.

--Seneca's Thyestes, Act IV (Trans. E. F. Watling)

"I don't recommend it": A review of Night Train (2009)

I watched two movies the other night. The first was From Hell, the Jack the Ripper story based on Alan Moore's graphic novel and starring Heather Graham and Johnny Depp. Those two couldn't make a bad movie if they tried. I'm one-thirds to half-joking. The other movie was Night Train (2009). I had just been wondering to myself about two days earlier, what's Leelee Sobieski been up to since Eyes Wide Shut? Turns out the answer is a crap load of things, including several movies I have, in fact, some cases, very unfortunately.

Anyway, about the movie. A few preliminary remarks are called for. I am like Hume's Man of Taste, but still I've seen The Postman about 3 or 4 times more than I've seen La Dolce Vita, which I've seen twice. This isn't to say that I watch anything ironically. I have a very low tolerance for what is often designated "camp," and I rarely come across movies that "are so bad that they're good." I also don't get off on bad special effects, though it's usually pretty easy for me to ignore them.

Oh, also. I have sort of a weakness for suspense thrillers. I'd call it substance abuse, but it's a pretty happy day when one of these movies turns out to possess substance.

And I'm not hung up on "movies that make you think." I don't need a movie to make me think. And if I do think it's because I wanted to, not because some bossy movie made me.

Ah, one last thing. If a movie takes place entirely on a train, there's about a 90 to 95 percent chance that I will like it, and if a murder is involved, that bumps the percentage even higher.

All of this is sort of a roundabout way of saying that for most people, this Night Train is going to be the worst thing on wikipedia's list of entries for things called "night train," and as one who has imbibed it in fortified wine form, that's saying a lot. Nevertheless, there aren't many reviews of this movie up yet, so I thought I'd post my 2 cents (you're overpaying).

The plot of Night Train is not new. I hope it's not too spoily to say that its basic form it shares with Chaucer's "Pardoner's Tale," one of my favorites, except that the small cast (consisting of Danny Glover, the conductor of the train, Steve Zahn, a traveling salesman, and Leelee Sobieski, a med-school student, and about five other less important characters) are not a gang of drunken revelers, and they also don't begin with the virtuous intention of killing Death.

That's not exactly to say that the motivations of these three characters are unvirtuous, but instead, like most Americans, they suffer, each alone, invisibly spilling bourgeois tears over the lives they could be living if only they had lots and lots of money. I know their pain. They are my sisters and brothers.

So Christmas eve (of all nights to be unwealthy!) finds Zahn and Sobieski sharing the rear car of the titular train when a mute stranger appears bearing an unusual present. In no time at all, he is dead, courtesy of the lethal interaction of some pills he was taking and one of Zahn's miniature bottles of vodka. For some reason, I think he wanted to die. Morbid curiousities are piqued, and all three (including Glover, who's come for the now-dead man's fare) take a peak inside the box. It contains...another box. But that box contains...the lives they could each be living...lives where they wouldn't have to be successful salesmen or doctors like their parents want...lives where they wouldn't have to be anything other than rich. One sees emeralds, one sees diamonds. Sobieski sees some other kind of gems, presumably. Little do they know, the box is magic or something, passing through history, leaving death and destruction in its wake by seeming to contain the heart's desire of whomever peers inside. "Gems, you saw? How ordinary," contemptfully remarks a later, nameless character who knows about the box. I wonder what he would see. I would see world peace.

Things proceed predictably from there on out. You're never really given the chance to care about the characters, just as they were never given a chance to care about the man who killed himself on Christmas eve. Then, ultimately, the twist is that there is no twist, and everyone dies, including a cross-dresser, an Chinese man and his father who spend most of the movie playing Go, and the little dog too.

If you're looking for a better modern take on the Pardoner's Tale, I'd recommend "A Simple Plan," especially if you're into believability and character development. The acting is much, much better (if you can resist thinking "Game over, man! Game over!" every time you see Bill Paxton), the setting's more desolate and evocative, and the characters start out as friends, so when they turn on each other, it means more. But if you're exactly like me, and you've already seen "A Simple Plan," and there's really nothing else on, and you already drank about half a bottle of wine watching a mostly decent movie and are just looking for something, anything to accompany the second half, then "Night Train" will certainly help you pass the time.

But you don't have to take my word for it.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

No soap! Radio!

So this is a new blog. When I come across unfamiliar blogs, I like to travel back to their first post to see how they did it, how they started. I'm still not sure what exactly I intend to accomplish here, but my imaginary readership deserves some kind of explanation, provisional as it may be.

You could probably call me an academic. At any rate, I'm working on a dissertation. Something about the function of literature now that there's nothing special about being human. That's the general idea, but the details change a lot. And quickly, too. I can barely keep up, that's part of the problem. It's not that what I'm trying to hammer out is inarticulable. (If only!) A combination of things prevent me from making progress, including laziness, which I sometimes call "sporadic bouts of nihilism." I also lack discipline, and now that I'm not teaching undergraduates, my days lack any institutional structuring principle. Maybe this blog is part confession?

Anyway, starting sometime around November, I've sort of been on this new kick about breaking old habits and developing new good habits. I quit smoking, for example, on November 4th. (Something happened that day, and it made me realize that I wanted to live!) Nicorette helped a lot, and by the time he was inaugurated, I was nicotine free.

As for making good new habits to replace the old, I remembered Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography from when I had taught it to undergrads. "Order" was where I needed to start. No more of this waking up when I wake up, eating lunch for breakfast and breakfast for dinner. So I made this chart, loosely modelled on Franklin's. Franklin's schedule only allowed 5 hours for sleep. I need more than that.

I have also made an effort to increase my writing to reading ratio. For too long I've heard myself say, now that I've read x, I couldn't possibly write a single word before finishing blank, where "blank" currently equals Theodor Adorno's Negative Dialectics but will undoubtedly equal something else when I've finished that. (Hopefully no one's reading this and is like, "hasn't even read Negative Dialectics, yet? What an asshole.") So this blog is also part writing exercise.

Beyond that, we'll see. First real post: not very interesting, so now I'll drop some philosophy on you, courtesy of my favorite self-help author/2nd favorite Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius (trans. Gregory Hays):
Everything in flux. And you too will alter in the whirl and perish, and the world as well.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Seriousness: quote of the week (x2)

G. W. F. Hegel, "Preface" to Phenomenology of Spirit:
Thus the life of God and divine cognition may well be spoken of as a disporting of Love with itself; but this idea sinks into mere edification, and even insipidity, if it lacks the seriousness, the suffering, the patience, and the labour of the negative.

Henri Bergson, Laughter:
All that is serious in life comes from our freedom. The feelings we have matured, the passions we have brooded over, the actions we have weighed, decided upon and carried through, in short, all that comes from us and is our very own, these are the things that give life its oft-times dramatic and generally grave aspect. What, then, is requisite to transform all this into a comedy? Merely to fancy that our seeming freedom conceals the strings of the dancing-jack, and that we are, as the poet says,
...humble marionettes
The wires of which are pulled by Fate.*

* …d’humbles marionettes

Dont le fil est aux mains de la Nécessité.


For starters: A Fool Repeats

"As a dog returns to its vomit,

so a fool repeats his folly."

--Proverbs 26: 11

"The laws of memory are subject to the more general laws of habit. Habit is a compromise effected between the individual and his environment, or between the individual and his own organic eccentricities, the guarantee of a dull inviolability, the lightning-conductor of his existence. Habit is the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit. Breathing is habit. Life is habit." (7-8)

--Beckett, Samuel. Proust. New York: Grove Press, 1957.

[Pictured, from right to left: one dearly-departed luck dragon and his vampire friend, two creatures of habit]