Today marks the bicentennial of the birth of Henry David Thoreau, and rereading Walden always inspires me to say some uncharitable and unfair things about Thoreau. Knowing that they are unfair (see HERE, for example) I’m going to say them anyway, since having once been said it will be possible to see how and why they are unfair – as applied to Thoreau, at least – and then say some things that are fair, though mostly about some of Thoreau’s “readers.” So, let’s start by presenting the unfair in its simplest, and most privileged terms.
Many years ago, the Science Fiction author Robert A. Heinlein elucidated what he called, “the Sears-Roebuck” fallacy. (Memory tells me this was in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. You should not credit my memory with any authority.) Describing this in my own words, young Henry David decides to head off into the wilderness, and make for himself the life of a True Man. Upon arrival, the first thing he needs to do is build himself some shelter, so he grabs his trusty ax, and sets out to fell some trees. But wait a minute! He was supposed to be leaving civilization behind; so where did that ax come from?
Why, the Sears-Roebuck catalog, of course! Continue reading
Good comedy and good scholarship are about challenging expectations. Still, they are an odd couple to pair in a single blog post (it doesn’t fit our expectations): there is seldom anything scholarly in comedy, and even rarer is there anything intentionally comic in scholarship. Philosophy jokes are even rarer, and less funny, than fencing jokes. For example:
When you’re at a party, you can always tell who fences with which weapon by what they talk about. In one corner will be the foil fencers, and they’ll be talking about the style and the finesse of the moves. In another corner will be the epee fencers, and they’ll be talking about the dynamics and continuities of the moves. In the third corner will be the saber fencers, who will all be talking about themselves …
It is actually a lot funnier if you’re a fencer, but it is still clear enough that even non-fencers might well be amused by the wordplay. Here, on the other hand, is pretty much the only philosophy joke I know:
Herr Doktor Professor strides into the lecture hall, turns and faces the terrified students in attendance. “I have come,” he declares, in his booming but gravelly voice, “to talk to you about … ZE UNIVERSE!! Und vhy, you ask, am I here to talk about … ZE UNIVERSE??!!” Herr Doktor Professor pauses, glares at all the intent faces, and then shrugs. “Because zats all zere is …”
Like I said, pretty sad. I’m the only person I know who has ever laughed at that joke. And that was even before I’d read much Hegel.
(“More what you might call ‘guidelines’ …”)
If you don’t get the above reference, then I pity the life you’ve led.
Anyway, it turns out that I have “rules.” The idea hadn’t occurred to me so much, one way or the other, until some 20 years ago, when I happened to formulate these “rules.” (I’ll stop scare-quoting the word now.) I may or may not have mentioned the fact that I was (for a while, at least) a moderately serious Renaissance Faire participant, what is often referred to as a “rennie.” And by “participant,” I mean I had invested something in the neighborhood of $1,200.00 in garb and gear (about half of that was for my custom made, thigh-high boots alone) to participate in character as a low ranking German nobleman of the 16th C. The attached picture really is me (and yes, that is my hair). I share it here with the generous permission of the photographer, Jeffrey Gibson, D. Phil. The hyper link at his name is to his photographer’s website, and I encourage everyone to follow that link and take a look at some of his work.
In any event, it was at Ren Faire – in garb and in character – that I learned that I had rules. Rules about interpersonal, social/sexual interactions. This would be a matter of scarcely any interest even to myself, except that the nature of those rules has some interesting philosophical characteristics over and beyond just what I personally will or will not do. It is to this latter I wish, ultimately, to address myself. But first I have to say a bit about the rules themselves, so that the philosophical implications have something to build upon. But to get to the rules themselves, I first must tell a story. Continue reading
Never assume intelligence when stupidity will do the job.
This is a recently composed notion of mine, unlike my “first law,” which I’d entertained for many years prior to writing it up HERE. Now if only I can come up with a third law, I’ll have a complete set. “Laws” like these always come in threes: Asimov’s laws of robotics, the laws of thermodynamics (although some de classé fools claim there are four of these), and so on. Anyway, I’ve got a ways to go to come up with #3, and in the meantime I’m here to talk about the second law. (Notice how I avoided saying, “I’m here to talk about #2” … )
So, “Never assume intelligence when stupidity will do the job.” Every conspiracy theory in the world is predicated upon ignoring this fundamental law of reasoning. This rule has been variously expressed as, “Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups” by the good folks at Demotivators, Inc. But while this latter formulation drops out as a corollary to the above, the Second Law is the more fundamental statement of the principle involved. So, my discussion here will start with a few examples of conspiracy theories, because these provide the clearest examples of violation of the law. But these are merely exempli gratia, and I don’t want them to overwhelm the larger problem of the ability of gross stupidity to make things unboundedly worse than they already are, without any shred of planning or design. Continue reading
I don’t like bridges. I mean the physical, not the musical, ones. Your typical short span over the local creek won’t upset me. But those huge, arcing monsters traversing vast rivers or bays give me the willies. Perhaps the Sum of All (my bridge) Fears is the Coronado Bay bridge in San Diego, pictured below. It is high, it is long, it is curved, and it doesn’t even have any external skeletal structures to give you any sense of containment or safety. As you can see from the picture, there’s barely even a guard rail at the side. Look again at the little dark bump a bit right of center of the picture, on the bridge. That’s a vehicle driving by. I’m sure it has never happened, but in my nightmares I envision cars flipping over that rail and going into the bay.
But the nightmares get much worse than that. In them, there is no rail at all, and only a line separating oncoming traffic from each other. The curves are canted at such an extreme angle that you have to accelerate into them or risk sliding right off. But if you accelerate too much, you’ll fly off the outside edge. The whole thing is more twisted than a knotted shoelace, with multiple on and off ramps and cars streaking past at insane and uncontrollable speeds.
Go ahead: you can make that jump …
You might ask yourself, why I am sharing these sleep disturbing images with you? Well, good question, glad to see you’re paying attention. For the record, I did tag and categorize this post as “personal,” meaning that the reflections are largely personal ones that need not have any deeper philosophical significance. Although, in this instance, there is a deeper personal significance to last nights squirrelly dreaming. Continue reading
There’s a phenomenon I’ve been noticing on social media for a while now, in those sections focusing on climate change, AGW (Anthropogenic Global Warming), and the infantile, ideological denial thereof. The latter, the denialists, come in a variety of flavors. There are the Galactically Stupid, who insist AGW is not really happening. Press these willfully delusional intellectual children even a little bit, and they are all forced to fall back on some kind of conspiracy theory or other, since that is the only way they can dismiss the overwhelming scientific evidence proving them wrong. Yes, that’s right:
Tens of thousands of scientists, publishing of thousands of research papers, on hundreds of independent lines of evidence, in dozens of independent scientific venues, have collectively joined in an insidiously impenetrable conspiracy to foist upon the world a demagogic lie whose sole purpose is to destroy capitalism. Meanwhile, a few well-paid heroes of the proletariat struggle desperately to save the innocent fossil fuel industry from this terrible onslaught.
Power relations and interpersonal relations – by which I mean, those that carry substantive sexual content, regardless of whether they ultimately lead to coitus – must be kept separate. When they are not, they both become twisted. The preceding invites immediate misinterpretation, and so I must take steps to clarify and set that misinterpretation aside. I’m not talking about the kinds of “kinky” sex games that go by the various titles of “bondage & discipline” (B&D) or that form of pain management that falls under the title of “sado-masochism” (S&M). Note, first off, that the two are not the same. Note, secondly, that, when engaged by two (or more) consenting adults, the power relations are what might justifiably be characterized as “pseudo power” relations. There is a pretense of power in real play. Indeed, insofar as any person in such plays or scenarios exercises real power, it is the “sub,” the “submissive” (who might be either male or female), because this is the person that can bring the whole thing to a stop with a single word. In all real play, the sub has the “stop,” the “safe,” or the “control” word, and can exercise it at any point of his or her choice. And herein lies the difference between consensual B&D or S&M play, versus genuine abuse: in the former, there is a pretense of power in real play, while in the latter, there is a pretense of play in real power.
This is where we find so many of the objections to the sexual fantasy Fifty Shades of Grey. (I decline to link to it.) Well, one of the objections; evidently the writing was not such as to be short listed for the Booker Prize. I’ve not read the book myself, so everything I say here needs to be viewed with some skepticism. However, I am reporting the evaluations of people I trust. So while that should mean nothing to you, it means a quite a bit to me. In any case, the female protagonist in the story never exercises any real power. Rather, she is the Stockholm-Syndrome participant in her own degradation. Persons can certainly appear, to all superficial observation, to be willingly consenting to such degradation. But this is the paradigm of the pretense of play in real power.
And it is twisted. Continue reading