Glaucon’s Porcine Preference for the Advanced Polis

I never particularly liked Glaucon. His responses to Socrates‘ description, in Plato‘s Republic (372 (a-d)), of the basic polis are a good reminder of why.

Socrates quoth:

First of all, then, let us consider what will be the manner of life of men thus provided. Will they not make bread and wine and garments and shoes? And they will build themselves houses and carry on their work in summer for the most part unclad and unshod and in winter clothed and shod sufficiently? And for their nourishment they will provide meal from their barley and flour from their wheat, and kneading and cooking these they will serve noble cakes and loaves on some arrangement of reeds or clean leaves, and, reclined on rustic beds strewn with bryony and myrtle, they will feast with their children, drinking of their wine thereto, garlanded and singing hymns to the gods in pleasant fellowship, not begetting offspring beyond their means lest they fall into poverty or war?

What is Glaucon’s interjection?

No relishes apparently, for the men you describe as feasting.

Socrates recovers from the silliness of this and responds, gamely:

True, I forgot that they will also have relishes—salt, of course, and olives and cheese and onions and greens, the sort of things they boil in the country, they will boil up together. But for dessert we will serve them figs and chickpeas and beans,  and they will toast myrtle-berries and acorns before the fire, washing them down with moderate potations and so, living in peace and health, they will probably die in old age and hand on a like life to their offspring.

Glaucon’s response:

If you were founding a city of pigs, Socrates, what other fodder than this would you provide?

The ever-polite Socrates responds:

Why, what would you have, Glaucon?

The real ‘pig’ in all of this, Glaucon, respond:

What is customary; they must recline on couches, I presume, if they are not to be uncomfortable.

Waddaprick. The basic polis sounds pretty nice, especially when you consider that the kind of polis envisaged by Glaucon requires–as he admits a little later in the dialogue (373 (d-e)–the introduction of the doctor and the soldier. (Healthcare and the Military! Sound like budgetary problems to me.) The first occupation addresses the rash of diseases that will be caused by the ‘richer’ lifestyle of the more advanced polis–Socrates’ argument for the need for doctors in the advanced polis is an interesting anticipation of modern thinking about diseases of affluence. More perniciously, the advanced polis results inevitably in a desire for territorial expansion: the standing army with its budgetary demands and its endless conscriptions, its creation of wars, the scourge of human history, is a function of the mode of organization of the state it defends.

Glaucon disdains the frugal nature of the basic polis, seemingly unaware that the richer polis he has in mind is the one that will actually encourage porcine behavior.

Excerpted from: Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vols. 5 & 6 translated by Paul Shorey. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1969. Available online at the Perseus Digital Library.

Professorship and ‘The Perennial Taker of Courses’

In ‘In Greenwich, There Are Many Gravelled Walks‘ Hortense Calisher writes,

Robert was a perennial taker of courses–one of those non-matriculated students of indefinable age and income, some of whom pursued, with monkish zeal and no apparent regard for time, this or that freakishly peripheral research project of their own conception, and others of whom, like Robert, seemed to derive a Ponce de Léon sustenance from the young.

I have special fondness for the non-matriculate; I began my academic career as one, taking two graduate classes in philosophy before I began formal doctoral studies. And before I registered for them, when I informed my mother that I planned to quit my day job eventually to seek a full-time academic career, her immediate, and immensely gratifying, reaction was, ‘That’s great! If you become a professor you take classes for the rest of your life at your university!’ I hadn’t thought that the opportunity to be an endless dilettante, browsing through each semester’s course offerings and picking one, would present itself as the most obvious advantage of a professor’s life, but my mother certainly thought that way.

I haven’t managed to do so. But I did try. After I returned to New York from my post-doctoral work in Sydney, I sat in on Spanish 101. Learn a language, travel, cook–you know, the standard aspirations. I attended quite a few classes, but found it difficult to keep up with homework given my teaching and service duties (and of course, my own academic interests). I didn’t make it to the end of the semester; sometime shortly after the mid-term (in which I got a decent, but not excellent, grade), I dropped out.

A year later, I tried again. This time around, having convinced myself that the problem the last time around had been the lack of a formal component to my dabbling, and with an eye on a graduate seminar on the Frankfurt School offered through the History department at the CUNY Graduate Center, I registered, taking advantage of the tuition exemption for employees of the City University.

This time around, things went marginally better. I did most of the readings, attended all the classes, and even wrote a  paper on Horkheimer, which was probably quite amateurish, but which was very helpful in making me more familiar with his writings. But again, I found things not entirely to my liking.  I was still busy with teaching and service and writing, and the time needed to travel to Manhattan for the seminar and do the readings seemed onerous. (Perhaps I didn’t enjoy the company of graduate students. Too many of them seemed to instantiate dreaded archetypes of that demographic: the hasn’t-done-the-readings-but-will-still-pontificate-on-it and the can’t-shut-up-and-stay-on-point varietals being the most pernicious. I certainly wasn’t deriving any ‘Ponce de Léon sustenance’ from them.)

So that was my last attempt to replicate the non-matriculate days. I became ever busier with my own writing and confined my dilettantism to unguided, unstructured dabbling on my own. And I had found other outlets for it: teaching new classes or revising syllabi for classes taught previously and blogging being the most prominent among them. Besides, once you’re a full professor, its all pretty much dabbling in any case.

Walking the City: Random Walks Through Manhattan Streets

In Street Life: Becoming Part of the City, Joseph Mitchell wrote:

What I really like to do is wander aimlessly in the city. I like the walk the streets by day and by night. It is more than a liking, a simple liking–it is an aberration. Every so often, for example, around nine in the morning, I climb out of the subway and head toward the office building in midtown Manhattan in which I work, but on the way a change takes place in me–in effect, I lose my sense of respectability–and when I reach the entrance to the building I walk right past it, as if I had never seen it before. I keep on walking, sometimes only for a couple of hours, but sometimes until deep in the afternoon, and I often wind up a considerable distance away from midtown Manhattan–up in the Bronx Terminal Market maybe, or over on some tumbledown old sugar dock on the Brooklyn riverfront, or out in the weediest part of some weedy old cemetery in Queens. It is never very hard for me to think up some excuse that justifies me in behaving this way…

I lived in Manhattan from 1993 to 2000 and often walked ‘aimlessly in the city’; Manhattan’s layout encouraged such roaming. It felt like a gigantic playground, laid out so as to invite exploration. I moved across the Hudson to 95th Street and West End Avenue in 1993, and soon began walking regularly to and from my classes on 42nd Street (between 5th and 6th Avenues). I wanted to vary my walk, so I chose different methods for changing my routes: sometimes crossing straight over to Broadway and then walking uptown, sometimes heading for Central Park West, sometimes letting the lights regulate my path. The feeling of stumbling onto a never-before explored city block never grew old; I often thought of checking them off a list but felt too lazy to do so, trusting that time and my randomizing algorithms would eventually exhaust the possibilities. When I moved to the Lower East Side (5th Street between Avenues A and B) in 1997, I continued walking to 42nd Street, and was able to conduct my explorations while heading uptown. As always, I found storefronts, buildings, street characters, food, and sundry other urban features and residents I would not have had I stuck exclusively to taking the subway.

Manhattan encouraged expansive walking. I dreamed up extravagant routes and sometimes acted on these plans. On one such jaunt, I walked from 5th Street to 110th (the northern edge of Central Park), moving from 59th to 110th along Central Park East, turned west, walked south along Central Park West down to 59th again, turned east to Lexington Avenue, walked south till 28th, where I stopped for some Indian food, before heading back home. I planned too, to walk the entire length of Broadway, never pulled it off, but haven’t given up that dream yet.

Walking on Manhattan streets reminded me, as always, that the best way to experience a city is from street level; the pace is right, its features pop into focus, you can stop and stare and sample. A city is made up of streets; walking on them is still how one best finds out what makes it tick.

Why The Talking Dead is a Bad Idea

Last night, I declined to watch the Oscars and chose The Walking Dead instead. If you’re going to watch zombies, why not watch a more interesting group of them? Snark aside, I had not seen most of last year’s crop of nominees, other than the mildly diverting Argo, and more to the point, I’ve burned out on the Motion Picture Academy’s annual orgy of self-congratulation. (Last year’s post on the Oscars described the genesis of this gradual turning away, one which started much, much earlier for the Grammys, and is now firmly in place for most awards of a similar kind.)

So, my choices for the evening settled, I turned to AMC. This represents a novelty of sorts for me. My following of television series has been restricted to watching the commercial-free episodes available on Netflix or bittorrent sites.  But my hankering for the Grim Grimesmeisters Hijinks had grown too acute, so there I was, braving myself to sit through the barrage of commercials that would inevitably accompany the latest installment of Zombie Apocalypse Bulletins. (I had begun this brave adventure last week, with the second episode of season three.)

The commercials were painful, but far more bothersome was AMC’s show The Talking Dead, which followed the new episode, an hour-long discussion of the episode with in-studio guests, a studio audience and a ‘surprise cast character.’ I had stopped watching after fifteen minutes the previous week, and this time around, my patience ran out after five.

The problem with The Talking Dead, and with any other show like it, which aims to dissect, discuss and lay threadbare an ongoing television show and wax ‘analytical’ about it, is that it dispels fantasy all too quickly. The point of watching a show like The Walking Dead (or Breaking Bad, or The Wire, or ) is to enter an alternate reality for a while, to be caught up in its story and characters, to come to believe, if only fleetingly, that the trials and tribulations of those on screen are real. A discussion show blows this imperative out of the water. It reminds us relentlessly, that the characters are just actors, often uninteresting people in their non-character personas, that directors, writers, and producers are pulling the strings and are often insufferably pompous, that locales are studio lots.  It connects the artfully constructed parallel universe to ours far too quickly; it raises the hood and peeks at the innards a little too closely. The Walking Dead in particular is supposed to be a grim show; it has little humor (both in the comic book and the series); the goofiness of The Talking Dead is especially grating.

I realize that I’m taking the on-the-surface silliness of The Talking Dead too seriously, so let me reiterate that the point being made here is a general one: too much inquiry into an ongoing fantasy is a bad idea. The serious fan should stay away; suspend disbelief, watch the show, and when you’re done, keep it that way. Till the next episode.

Op-Eds and the Social Context of Science

A few years ago, I taught the third of four special interdisciplinary seminars that students of the CUNY Honors College are required to complete during the course of their degrees. The CHC3 seminar is titled Science and Technology in New York City, a moniker that is open, and subject to, broad interpretation by any faculty member that teaches it. In my three terms of teaching it, I used it to introduce to my students–many of whom were science majors and planned to go on to graduate work in the sciences–among other things, the practice of science and the development and deployment of technology in urban spaces. This treatment almost invariably required me to introduce the notion of a social history of science, among whose notions are that science does not operate independent of its social context, that scientists are social and political actors, that scientific laboratories are social and political spaces, not just repositories for scientific equipment, that scientific theories, ‘advances’ and ‘truths’ bear the mark of historical contingencies and developments. (One of my favorite discussion-inducing examples was to point to the amazing pace of scientific and technological progress in the years from 1939 to 1945 and ask: What could have brought this about?)

If I were teaching that class this semester, I would have brought in Phillip M. Boffey‘s Op-Ed (‘The Next Frontier is Inside Your Brain‘, New York Times, February 23) for a classroom discussion activity. I would have pointed out to my students that the practice of science requires funding, sometimes from private sources, sometimes from governmental ones. This funding does not happen without contestation; it requires justification, because funds are limited and there are invariably more requests for funding than can be satisfied, and sometimes because there is skepticism about the scientific worth of the work proposed. So the practice of science has a rhetorical edge to it; its practitioners–and those who believe in the value of their work–must convince, persuade, and argue. They must establish the worth of what they do to the society that plays host to them.

Boffey’s Op-Ed then, would have served as a classic example of this aspect of the practice of science. It aims to build public support for research projects in neuroscience, because, as Boffey notes at the very outset:

The Obama administration is planning a multiyear research effort to produce an “activity map” that would show in unprecedented detail the workings of the human brain, the most complex organ in the body. It is a breathtaking goal at a time when Washington, hobbled by partisan gridlock and deficit worries, seems unable to launch any major new programs.

This effort — if sufficiently financed — could develop new tools and techniques that would lead to a much deeper understanding of how the brain works. [link  in original]

And then Boffey is off and running. For Congressmen need to be convinced; perhaps petitions will have to be signed; perhaps other competitors who also hope to be ‘sufficiently financed’ need to be shown to be less urgent. And what better place to place and present these arguments than the nation’s media outlets, perhaps its most prominent newspaper?

The scientist as polemicist is one of the many roles a scientist may be called on to play in his work in science. Sometimes his work may be done, in part, by those who have been persuaded by him already. Boffey’s arguments, his language, his framing of the importance of the forthcoming legislation, would, I think, all serve to show to my imagined students this very important component of the practice of science.

Walking, Head Down, on a Damp and Grey Day: How Virtuous It Is

On days like this, many residents of the US eastern seaboard are apt to question their decision to ever inhabit these spaces. The temperature is in the thirties (that’s just a couple of degrees above freezing point for all the folks living in Celsius-land); a steady, persistent drizzle is falling; and the most familiar color of all here on the East Coast, grey, has been used to paint, yet again, New York’s urban landscapes. Many of us will stay indoors today, but those who venture out will find that that experience brings its own reward, one which I suspect underwrites the tolerance that long-term East Coasters have for this benighted clime. Which is that walking, head down, through near-freezing temperatures while water drips off your hat, beanie, jacket  or whatever–because you know, many New Yorkers, like Pacific Northwesters, disdain umbrellas when rain of this intensity is falling–is often prone to provoking an acute sense of virtuousness in oneself.

Why would that be? For one thing, the mere fact of being outdoors puts you on the side of the Spartans. You have disdained comfort, the domestic hearth, and have ventured forth boldly. Not for you the safety of the familiar, the quotidian. No, suffused with the spirit of the intrepid, you have dared to look into your closet, laced and buttoned up, and sallied out. And once outdoors, the physical particulars of the day are conducive to a very distinctive mode of daydreaming.

As you walk, head bowed, grimly determined to make it through and past the damp and cold, you enter a zone similar to that entered by many who persistently engage with the uncomfortable: the once seemingly impossible barriers that your task seemed to have raised start to melt away, leaving you with the pleasing possibility that your abilities have the magical effect of making life more tractable.  This is gratifying in the extreme.

But even more importantly walking in bad weather forces a mode of concentration upon us that is increasingly hard to find and persist with in our normal, constantly-interrupted, notified, pinged, paged, and remindered existence: for that span of time that the walk persists, its just you and the execrable weather. And when things are that intimate, when using the smartphone might not be, you know, all that smart, why not just retreat a little bit into the ever more unfamiliar space of introspection?

I suspect these ventures into that space are often found by us to be pleasurable, that we enjoy our retreats into these rare moments of solitude. Thoughts move a little differently, they are not so easily displaced by external stimuli. Because, lets face it, on an East Coast day like this, who wants to look about and around, and stop and stare? Better to press on.

And that pressing on is really the clincher, I think. Nothing quite makes you imagine yourself as the relentless, courageous, explorer like a walk in really, really, shitty weather.

And yes, I did go out today.

‘If It’s Dead, Kill It’: The Second Compendium of the Walking Dead

Last year, I discovered The Walking Dead (the television series and the comic book). Like most fans of the television series, I’m all caught up now with the second half of the third season. Given the disappointing nature of the first two episodes of the second half, I’m glad that I have something else to take care of my Walking Dead jonesing: the massive second compendium of the comic book (Compendium Two, Image Comics, 2013), which collects issues 49 through 96. (The series is up to issue 108 by now, so it will be a while before the third compendium will be released; in terms of tracking the relationship between the comic book and the television series, the third season is right about where the first Compendium ends.)

I’ve written on this blog before about the relationship between the comic book and the television series so I will not get into that again. Rather, reading the second Compendium has provided me an opportunity to make some educated guesses about where the show might be going, and even more interestingly, to examine the particular vision the creators of the comic book have about the post-zombie-apocalypse world.

Most prominently, it is clear the most interesting conflicts in the zombie world are not with the dead but with the living.  While zombies are deadly, and require vigilance, violence and nous to keep at bay, the human survivors are more insidious and harder to combat. Allusions to Hobbesian states of nature and methods to alleviate them are never too far from the surface in the comic book especially in the two Woodbury-like developments encountered in the second compendium.People are prickly, selfish, angry, paranoid, greedy, and all of the rest; turns out, in a world ruled by zombies those qualities are merely enhanced, not ameliorated. For the most part, this is what gives the comic book (and the television series) its edginess: there is almost always perpetual conflict between those who have survived. Like the first compendium, there is grotesque violence directed at humans even as we note that acts of violence directed against the dead have now become mild amusements.  And this is what makes the zombie world just so bothersome: there is no getting away from plain folks. Hell really is other people. (The second compendium also, finally, starts to allude to what really would be the biggest problem of all: an inconsistent and fast dwindling food supply.)

There is internal conflict too. Rick Grimes continues to be (literally) haunted by his memories as do other characters in a variety of ways. And there is a great deal of mourning, painful introspection and just second-guessing, for the numbers of the dead continue to pile up, each death generating its own profuse regret and bitterness. Indeed, if you’ve survived, you’re traumatized and will act out that trauma in one way or the other. This makes some episodes in the compendium a little tedious, as reading them approximates listening into a therapy session. Which should remind us: the busiest service providers in a zombie world would be grief counselors and psychotherapists. The Walking Dead are not just the zombies, they are the living too.