Anti-Climacus


"Thou shalt not extinguish thine anger, but shall master it, that thy conscience may not be blunted by adjustment to wrong causes."
-The Dutch Ten Commandments to Foil the Nazis

20.11.14

Leonardo Padura, The Man Who Loved Dogs: Let's stipulate that El Boom, the earlier generation of Latin American writing, had as one of its central theses the unreality of place. Its Latin America is historical, exotic, sometimes magical, sometimes uncanny, a place that looks and feels very much like anywhere else in the world, except in the small and telling differences. How ever little else Isabel Allende, Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Jorge Luis Borges et al might have had in common, they at least had that. The exception, if there is one, is Mario Vargas Llosa, who seems determined to assert the reality of existence against any claims of the fantastic.


If that's El Boom, the New Boom accepts different criteria: realism and honesty above all else, especially when the subject is violence. If anything holds together Javier Marias, Javier Cercas, Roberto Bolaño, Juan Gabriel Vasquez, and the other figures of the current moment in Latin American literature, it is that the latter half of the 20th century was held together, in Spain and elsewhere, by unimaginable and banal acts of coercion and violence: Spain in the long aftermath of the Civil War, Chile and Argentina in the brutality of the juntas, Colombia in narcoterrorism and paramillitarism, Mexico in gang violence and global capitalism. The challenge these writers face is to explain this history well.

The Man Who Loved Dogs manages two difficult tasks well. First, it explains a historical event, the murder of Leon Trotsky by Ramón Mercader. Second, it is a retrospective work looking back on communism. Books whose ending is foreordained--Mercader is going to kill Trotsky, probably near the end of the novel--have a difficult time creating and sustaining tension. Books on communism have a strong tendency towards historical revisionism that makes for a predictable set of plot options and postures.* The solution to both problems is mixing historical locations and time periods: Spain during the Spanish Civil War, Russia in the 1930, Russia in the 50s and 60s, 90s and 00s Cuba; there is no one Communism, but a series of different responses in different concrete situations. Mercader and the narrator are both largely kept in the dark about what's really going on until it is too late. There are no bold statements about communism as a whole, but a long series of reflections on what it means to kill a man who is quite friendly as a person in the name of an ideology; Mercader has to spend a lot of time thinking about what he's done. It reverses the trend of writing on communism by focusing on the life of one person, a tragedy.


*The only contemporary novel-like book that meets this challenge is Red Plenty, a sympathetic but not too sympathetic look at Soviet communism in the best years of the 50s and 60s. I would also recommend the films The Cranes Are Flying and Letter Never Sent for good realistic and metaphorical understandings of communism--and produced by communists, no less.

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On Charles Taylor in Person

The first and most surprising thing is that he's gregarious with a good sense of humor. In his books he gives the impression of learnedness with a combination of analytic philosophy's obsession with concretely defining terms at the risk of abstraction and continental philosophy's desire to speak about actual human life at the risk of incoherence. In person he gives off the impression of someone who is looking to the resources of past thought to confirm or disconfirm the intuitions he has. The most refreshing thing was his willingness to admit when he just didn't know enough to answer someone's question, and he manages self-deprecation as well as or better than other academics. It may be a show, but it's a convincing one.

I initially found The Sources of the Self and A Secular Age to be interesting books for my own personal and academic interests. Sources of the Self mounts the argument that modern intellectual enterprises are not sustainable on their own, and implies near the end that only Christianity is positioned to surmount these difficulties in any inherent way. A Secular Age argues against narratives of decline in the west, that there was once some moment of perfect Christendom to which we need to return. The Protestant Reformation, in particular, was a necessary moment of rupture, and though it has made the task of being a coherent person aware of all reality more difficult, it is simply a problem we have to deal with. But it also appeared to undermine some of these arguments: the scope of examples of integrated, coherent living are restricted from a general Christianity in his early work to liberal Catholicism (and only liberal Catholicism) in his later work. In that rejection of a narrative of decline, there was still a narrative of decline, the implication that something had been irretrievably lost.

Watching him answer questions in an audience at least half composed of Divinity School faculty and students--and in a conversation dominated by them--convinced me these are incorrect interpretations and uncharitable views of his work. He readily admitted giving short shrift to sources he is now convinced would be quite useful for his account, John Calvin and Karl Barth in particular. The examples that appeared in A Secular Age were those he knew and had nearest to hand, hence the emphasis on Catholicism-as-Christendom. The same happened with my longstanding question of whether the 'liberal' or the 'Catholic' in 'liberal Catholic' was more important. 'Liberal' here means 'willing to be open to different modes of life and live peacefully with them' and 'Catholic' means 'aware of both transcendent reality as well as the things that have been gained and lost in the last 500 years.' For Taylor, it seems to be an 'it takes two wings to fly' situation: however awkward the combination, it's the only one possible for survival. A liberal alone cannot manage the contradictions of modern life; a Catholic (read: Christian) alone will be in denial about the world around him, and unable to reach it as he'd like.

I'll have to mull on this more, to see how I think about it, but it was an excellent validation of the principle of occasionally revisiting things you disliked to see if you've changed your mind.

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19.11.14

Steve Albini Was Right!

The funny thing about the music industry, as he says, is that it is fundamentally unconcerned with musicians and audiences. In the old days, it did this by making money regardless of the level of success a band experienced, as documented in its glory by "The Problem With Music". Now, it does so through analytics.

The article, on Shazam, treats data as a verifiable way to determine what music is going to be popular. It is premised on two assumptions that are quite debatable:

1. Musicians will continue to produce music in a range of genres, thus providing a constant stream of product to be sold. The quality of this music is unimportant, only whether people will buy it.

2. The important thing about audience reaction is that it exists. Why an audience reacts to a song is inconsequential.

In other words, Shazam's decisive technological victory is to take songs that have already been written, recorded and distributed, and use the fact that a growing audience has already liked the song, to determine that yet more future people will like it. Presumably, the song popular with a growing audience will continue to grow quite apart from Shazam or any other analytics. "Royals," the article's example, seems to have done just fine without concerted record industry action. Synthesizing this information isn't any kind of innovation at all: one would have to demonstrate that analytics make songs more popular than they would have been otherwise.* If you were looking for evidence that the music industry thinks of music as widgets and fans as lines on a balance sheet, you could hardly do better.


*Analytics make sense in some contexts. For example sports, where there are objective (if subjectively-defined) measures of success, and correlations can be found for the regular production of these measures. Very little is similarly objective in the arts. Certainly not amongst the whole population. If the purpose of analytics in music is to determine which sub-demographics might appreciate a certain type of music, then you're just re-creating the distribution models for independent music, or for niche markets like jazz and classical.

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Karl Barth in 1947:

Let us ask ourselves: What does the suffering which has fallen upon humanity in these past years mean for our thinking and our total experience? Have not things gone as they did with Samaria and Jerusalem? Judgments of God came. Things happened which thirty years ago we would have thought impossible. Six million Jews were murdered. Fire fell from heaven. Whole nations were led into exile. But all that has come and gone as a wing blows over the grass and flowers: they are bowed again for a while, but when the wind stops, they raise themselves up again. Is there a single man who has really become fundamentally different because of the falling bombs? And if it should become yet a little worse than it was, things would hardly be any different. Could atom bombs change and renew man? The very thought is absurd!
-Learning Jesus Christ Through the Heidelberg Catechism, 43-44

The metaphor of the grass bowing to the wind and then snapping back is so apposite, I am surprised that it isn't employed with regularity. All crises feel intractable and permanent in the moment, and all of them end. It's the reason for the endless capacity of man to endure, and the reason so many moments of potential change fail to produce much real change. When nothing much comes of the endless series of international crises, that's the reason, and it's the reason much is unlikely to come from Ferguson, too: the wind stops blowing and there's no longer anything that needs fixing so far as the grass is concerned.

(It is a remarkable metaphor to employ when speaking in Germany in 1947: "I know you think you have experienced something transformative, but let me assure you that you have not changed at all." Even more impressive because largely correct.)

It is also, for this reason, the perfect metaphor for the internet.

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18.11.14

One little thing to add to the discussion around Bill Cosby, who has taken some heat about a number of long-standing allegations of sexual assault. The new swarm of attention started when the comedian Hannibal Buress decided to do a little attention-grabbing shout-out on stage. Though a lot of the subsequent attention has focused on why a man completely unrelated to any of the incidents has credibility when the original accusers were ignored, and many have underestimated how career-boosting this move might be for Buress,* it remains a remarkable thing to do. It's the very rare example of someone with a public platform--a man with a public platform--using the sensationalist tastes of the internet-media complex to bring attention to an issue that is actually important.

See also Chris Kluwe on that troubling internet phenomenon: he will say a number of things that need to be said about the way women get treated because he has the unimpeachable confidence that, as a man, no one is going to attempt to hurt him as they have hurt the women who have done the same.

When you're in a position of power, or relative power, there are a lot of options: a problem can be ignored, or it can be subjected to an analysis that makes it partially the fault of all involved, it can be understood as a call to dignified suffering on the part of those who are hurt, it can be made the fault of those who provoked a response, or one can look with incredulity on the behavior of people who are like you to people who are not. The thing about being an educated white male heterosexual Christian in America is that while there are both many people who are like me and many who aren't, my thoughts, opinions and perspectives are going to be more respected on average than those people who are 'other' in some relevant respect. For people like me, Buress and Kluwe have to be the model: when a situation is intolerable, you have to use your position, no matter that you've done nothing to deserve it and it's not quite fair that you have it, in order to do something. For a few years now, the central question I ask myself about an issue is: "would any consequences flow to me if I chose to ignore this?" When the answer is 'no,' that's a sign that I should be concerned, that this is a place for moral inquiry to begin.


* "Fearlessly dedicated to the truth no matter the consequences" is a good look for a comedian, see also Chris Rock, Louis CK, Jon Stewart, and the long run of Lewis Black.

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On Lists, and the Popularity Thereof

The internet is filled with lists. Leaving aside economic motives for producing web content that people will find objectionable, good-faith lists have to embody two related requirements: they position the writer within the ranks of people who follow whatever is being listed, and they serve as a signal to people who have no familiarity with the genre what those in-the-know consider to be worthwhile. Lists on Gawker sites exist to start arguments. Lists on Buzzfeed or The Toast exist to make the reader feel hip should they get all the references. Pitchfork's lists are good exercises in both functions: within a community, they signal the willingness to accept or reject the hype for different musicians; outside that community, they function as a comprehensive guide to what is good in certain genres of hipster-approved music. Book rankings, like Modern Library's 20th Century Novels list, or film rankings, like those of AFI or Sight and Sound, are exercises in canon-making, but allow people to make certain claims about themselves based on where they disagree with the ranking.*

Given these two functions, this ranking of Sonic Youth albums is quite odd. The purpose of the list is, as the author announces it, to establish his credibility as a superfan, hip and knowledgable.** If he did not expressly announce this, making Daydream Nation--the generally agreed best Sonic Youth album--#6. One does not bury an obvious #1 unless Making A Statement. The list, however, culminates with Dirty, which contains five or six of Sonic Youth's most accessible, poppy songs. In other terms: it's like making a list that situates itself as bold and contrarian by asserting II to be the best Led Zeppelin album, not IV, or that Steven Spielberg the best director--neither implausible nor original.


*Let me tell you sometime about my feelings on The Best Years of Our Lives, or, say, Faulkner.

**It is also to make the bizarre argument that Sonic Youth is best when it's Thurston Moore's band which, given Moore's recent shredding of the principles he built his stardom around, is an odd choice, to say the least.

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17.11.14

How Southern Drivers Become Unable to Cope With Snow

Snow is in the forecast for Durham this weekend, and though it will most assuredly not happen, I thought I'd share this story from last winter:

On a Sunday morning last year, I was making the decision about whether or not to go to church. Though the odds of precipitation were low, there was a very small chance of ice or snow while I was in the service. As a driver who learned to drive in the midwest, I have no fear of snow or ice and total confidence in my ability to navigate them. This is true even in Durham, where the winter road preparations are, let's say, haphazard: the city at least owns snow plows, salt, and brine, even if it shows little understanding of how to use them.

No, the real problem is the other drivers. The first year I was here, Durham received a quarter-inch of snow, and the local news featured stories of people who ran out of gas at intersections because no one would even attempt to drive. Last year, we had a snow of 2-4 inches that fell in the afternoon, and caused chaos. Admittedly, the storm came on quickly, getting the first half inch in about an hour. The preferred solution for many drivers was to abandon their cars by the side of the road or, when needed, in the road itself.

Faced with the possibility of drivers like these, I did the only sensible thing and decided to stay home.

And that is how to take a northern driver and turn him into a southerner who is afraid to go out because it might snow.

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Elizabeth Cotten, "Honey Babe Your Papa Cares for You"

Folk music is usually marred by people who cannot sing very well--you have to imagine the intention rather than the result--but that's not a problem here. What's remarkable about it is how flexible the tone and style of the song are despite it being one variation on the same general thing.

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14.11.14

Cat Blogging, Don't Expect This To Be A Regular Feature Edition

For practical reasons, neither of my pets is fed at a set time everyday. Each, instead, is aware that a series of signals will indicate they are soon to be fed. For my cat, in the morning, these signals are drawn from some combination of time, number of cups of coffee consumed (the cat will jump up from wherever she is when she hears an empty coffee cup put down on the table), and whether she has woken up my wife. Once these have been done, the cat must bump my hand with her head in order to signal she wants food, and must bump my hand again to get her food from the scoop to her bowl. (How I trained her to do all this, I do not know. But I do know it was done in about a week.) When she feels that this process is not moving along at a speed of her liking, she will let me know, loudly and constantly.


Except when I wake up before I usually do. In these cases, though wide awake and active, she will completely and pointedly ignore me. It's not a question of hunger (she is on something of a diet and so always hungry; she is also always hungry when not on a diet), so the explanation, if any, is baffling.

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Deep inside the heart of any major fan is the conviction that their favorite artists must support their worldview. The problem with Christopher Nolan movies is that they underdevelop their thematic content: Memento is about memory and free will; The Prestige is about illusion as a metaphor for deception; Inception is about the nature of reality and our choices; Batman Begins is about what happens when you join and then leave a shadowy cabal of ninjas who secretly control the world. Each of them is about its subjects only in the most superficial and perfunctory of ways: there is the text, which lays out the themes in the broadest possible terms and rarely elaborates them, some basic symbolism, a clockwork plot, and a complete absence of any further elaboration. The films are perfect for a certain kind of reading, one that begins with the assumption that there must be a single, significant meaning to the whole and assigning that meaning in the most coherent manner possible, whether or not the film itself supports that meaning.

I am a fan of none of these things. The grim tone wears very quickly in movies that are very long. Adult seriousness is recognizable by its occasional comedic tone, which as most adults know is eternally present in life. The commitment to grim realism is also often colored by sentimentality rather than a more human range of emotions, genuine emotional reactions replaced by a general feeling of being impressed by the nature of the universe. Rather than the range of emotional connection to a variety of different people, there is only the most tear-jerking of parental or pseudo-parental connections (here we enter the territory of what is wrong with comic book movies, as well); individuals become totems of types. Cobb in Inception is a Husband and Father. The details of his wife are held out of the story for the longest possible time, and even less is said of his children: his Desire To See Them is what drives him.

The clockwork plotting of his films is also difficult to put up with. The question of construction in any narrative form is this: would the story collapse if the elements were ordered differently? My favorite example is the novel The Luminaries, ordered as the serial recollections of a group of men about events that have been transpiring in their community. Each tells his story and adds a bit of information to what has gone before, but the construction of the novel makes it clear that most of its length is taken up with these recollections, which will, by the end, bring the reader up to date. There's no particular reason why one of these gentlemen--who now all know the whole story--can't tell a brief summation of it, except that the book could not exist if they did so. Memento is not much of a movie if it is ordered in chronological sequence; Inception doesn't happen as it does if what is eventually revealed about Cobb is known at the beginning (it also might put more unwanted stress on questions like "why can't Cobb go see his kids exactly?" "why did people think he's responsible for his wife's death, which was obviously not the frame-up we are supposed to believe it to be?" and "why isn't Cobb in therapy?" Dwelling too much on this last one might also raise the question of why Batman, with his extensive emotional trauma, is not in therapy, unless Great Men Don't Need Shrinks).

This is unfortunate because the science fiction many of Nolan's films aspire to is a great genre for working out meaning, especially through the form of a single metaphor or allegory worked out to its full extent (Planet of the Apes is not subtle, but it is thorough) or complex but not complicated reflection on the conditions of normal life (Blade Runner is not a game of "who's the replicant?"; whether the world gets saved, and what happens to Bruce Willis, are neither of them the point of 12 Monkeys).

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12.11.14

An Ur-Theory of the Internet

The internet is not cool. There is nothing cool about it.

Facebook was cool, until it was opened to everyone, thus defeating its purpose as a graphical representation of the people college students and graduates know (ie a facebook); less cool until it allowed pictures to be tagged and thus stopped people from putting photos on Facebook;* and not at all cool as the repository for people's bumper sticker-length political musings, meme images that you would have been embarrassed to receive as attachments in an email from your dad 15 years ago, and attempts to position yourself as someone who reads the news.

Twitter was never cool, as evidenced by the ease with which "Tomorrow is [whatever day tomorrow is]" trends. It has also misguidedly convinced people that their thoughts are best expressed in 140-character bursts. Being inarticulate is not cool, especially if you are articulate.**

The rest of the internet is, more or less, television in the 1980s: wildly popular, with content ranging from boring to insulting, depending on one's preferences. 'This was a mildly amusing use of five minutes' is an argument advanced in favor of well-regarded content. What matters is advertising, and thus web publishing is based around those things that drive pageviews, and increase both the length of time spent interacting and the intensity of that interaction. Thus lists, listicles, nostalgia bait, advice columns--most of which now intentionally lead off with the most sensational questions, oral histories and interviews that are barely-edited interview transcripts, and posts that flatter or outrage the biases of that site's audience.

Mgoblog is my favorite site on the internet because it runs like a bespoke outfit: they clearly have goals about when to post new content, and attempt a set schedule week-to-week, and generally fail to do either. Brian writes his game column and publishes it when it's done. Ideally, that's at noon on Mondays, but if it's done at 11:00, it goes up at 11:00. If it's not done until 2:00, it goes up at 2:00. There's very little that feels that unforced anymore, though it certainly helps if you're already the largest single-team college sports blog.

Like tv in the 1980s, there are exceptions, both of the "things that are good considering what else is out there" and "things that are objectively good" variety, but they are rare.


*I cannot be the only one whose friends have a lot of pictures from 2006-2008 or so, and very few after. Or, at least, very few until they start having babies.

**I know many interesting people on twitter, and almost exclusively through twitter, and this is intended as no slight on them. I am just convinced that however interesting they are on twitter, they're more interesting in longer form.

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5.11.14

The vital step when teaching someone to write is to convince them that it's not chaos: planning, working through ideas, outlining, drafting, and editing really can lead to a superior product, so long as you are willing to put in the time and the effort.

The vital step in writing professionally is to recognize that chaos defeats the method every time: meticulous planning, careful drafting and revision, and whether you say what you intend (or do better!) depends on moments of inspiration that resist that plan. And whatever you write, you will find ways to say it better, later. No writing is ever done, just finished, and the willingness to let it go is most important.

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