Readin’ and Ridin’: Transportation within Transportation

Forty degrees and rain, soggy train platforms, and an unhappy toddler–my daughter, not happy at being dropped off at daycare–can make for a miserable start to a day.  It was only partially redeemed by finally finding dry shelter in the shape of a subway car for the ride into Manhattan. After my wife had disembarked at her station in downtown Brooklyn, I rode on by myself, finding companionship, as usual, in a book.

As I read about general relativity, inertial frames, non-Euclidean geometry, the instrumental nature of science, and so on, I looked around me: my subway car was full of daily commuters, reading, listening to music on headphones, some even engaged in quiet conversation. We were traveling over the Manhattan Bridge, and I could see the city’s massive skyline rising up out of the mist, visible through the raindrop-streaked window panes of the train.

At that moment, I was confined and crowded; passengers pressed up around me, hands jostled for hold space on various bars, and newspapers and books had been artfully held or folded to take up minimum space (and avoid the angry glare). I was hemmed in, boxed in.

But when I turned my eyes back to the pages that had been commanding my attention, I felt no such restriction. I was reading a masterful exposition of a fundamental physical theory; I was immersed in abstractions, in foundational questionings of concepts whose meanings are all too glibly assumed. I was transported, away from my immediate surroundings, lost in reveries.

This sounds a great deal like some schoolboy reporting on his first experience with an adventure book borrowed from the local library: “I was traveling distant lands, meeting strangers, doing amazing things, all while at home! Can you dig it?” (OK, that last part is an embellishment, but you catch my drift.)

This similarity shouldn’t be surprising at all. Reading is an intellectually respectable form of escapism and day-dreaming; why wouldn’t we seek, and be entertained by, those same pleasures that so enthralled us as children? To be sure, the form and content of our fantasies and speculations are markedly different from the times we read about adolescents solving mysteries in their hometown, but the primal need to be elsewhere, and the susceptibility to such diversions hasn’t gone away.

I’ve written before about reading on the New York City subway; my experience this morning was a reminder of one of my favorite reading rooms and its distinctive setting. In the subway, I travel to familiar places, surrounded by the familiar: well-traveled streets and bridges pass me by and around me, students go to school, workers go to work, lovers snuggle up, and readers read. But while I’m surrounded by the seemingly quotidian I also find myself absorbed in the distant, the abstract, the esoteric. Sometimes, like this morning, I look up from the pages, experience a slight start, and even smile a little: if only the folks around me just knew where I’d been, what I’d been up to.

Photocopiers and the Failure to Agree on Meaning

Brett Weiner at The New York Times has put together an amusing Op-Doc titled “Verbatim: What is a photocopier“? As  Weiner describes the provenance of the piece:

In a deposition in Ohio, a lawyer became embroiled in an absurd argument about the definition of a photocopier….The dialogue was so sharp, inane and fully realized that I assumed it was fiction. I traced the deposition back to the Ohio Supreme Court and downloaded hundreds of pages of legal documents from the case. To my pleasant surprise, it was as strange as it was true.

In this short film, I sought to creatively reinterpret the original events….My primary rule was the performance had to be verbatim — no words could be modified or changed from the original legal transcripts. Nor did I internally edit the document to compress time. What you see is, word for word, an excerpt from what the record shows to have actually unfolded.

Wiener’s short film is entertaining enough; the conversation is exasperatingly funny.  My first  response to viewing it–on a friend’s Facebook pages–expressed the suspicion that The New York Times‘ readers might rest content with snickering at just legal conversations:

I hope people don’t think – as the New York Times seems to want them to – that this captures some conversational dysfunction unique to the legal profession or to its discourse.

The New York Times, of course,  seems to think it is on to a good thing when it comes to showing us how dysfunctional it thinks legal discourse can be:

This marks the debut of a new series, presented by Op-Docs, that transforms verbatim…legal transcripts into dramatic, and often comedic, performances. Here you will find re-creations of actual events from the halls of law and government.

But the dysfunction on display in Weiner’s short film is far more ubiquitous and widespread – it is not confined to the legal sphere. This should be evident from the fact that the conversational interlocutors cannot and will not agree on the meaning of a widely used term; such disagreements are not unknown elsewhere, precisely so many conversations between humans are adversarial (like that between the lawyer and his unfortunate witness). In these settings, the acknowledgment of a shared meaning can  all too often entail the concession of a debating point, a rhetorical disadvantage that may seem unbearable enough to seek refuge in obfuscation. At those moments the failure to agree on meaning is a tactic to retain conversational advantage; it allows for the creation of an ambiguity where definite resolution would lead to unfavorable outcomes. (The witness in the video above is clearly worried he might concede too much by agreeing on a meaning of the term ‘photocopier’).

The most common and painful instance of this occurs in arguments between couples headed for a break-up: as the relationship disintegrates and falls apart, so do the conversations between the former lovers. (Our literature is replete with these; the mastery of a novelist is often displayed in his or her recreation of these agonizing moments.) These become increasingly conflicted and intractable; the shortest, simplest resolutions cannot be arrived at. All too suddenly, a pair of humans who had once imagined their significant other could actually intuit their inner feelings and sensibilities, find themselves unable to make their simplest pleas and requests comprehended and heard. Failures of memory are a well-established trope of these conversations, of course–“You hurt me when you did X?” “But I didn’t do X, so I have no idea what you are talking about”  – but so are failures of commonly understood meanings. We find out that our former lover ascribes meanings to “respect” or “commitment” or “listening” or “fidelity” that we don’t; our best attempts to point out we once shared meanings flounder. My examples are all of terms that are quite complex but as folks engaged in break-ups find out soon enough, you can’t agree about the meaning of just about anything as things get worse.

Failure to agree on meanings is more common than we imagine; it is how we indicate to our interlocutors we are not full, or even partial, participants in our conversation; it is how we indicate that our ends are different and will be achieved in our own distinctive ways.

Falling Off the Wagon

I had a bad week. Starting Friday April 18th, my brain went on the blink. In the following nine days, I only blogged twice (instead of my usual daily schedule), went to the gym only three times (instead of my scheduled seven times), read no books, and only entered into minor bouts of editing. I had thought I would take a small one-day break from my regular schedules, but it became much bigger. I was ‘unproductive’ in all the ways you can imagine; I did not take care of body or mind; I let them come asunder. This was a falling off the wagon, a derailment, a stumble and fall on a slippery peel I placed out for myself.

Today, I’m back in the library, my hands are back on a keyboard, the book I began reading more than ten days ago is in my backpack, waiting to be finished. (I returned to Albert Einstein‘s Ideas and Opinions on the train ride into Manhattan today.) I will go to the gym again today evening–my workout clothes, like that unread book, are in my backpack too–and attempt to resume my progress on the bench press. And after a week of eating enough sugar to induce coma in a small army of toddlers, I am back to trying to eat healthy again. (Broccoli and sausages in a lunchbox in, you guessed it, my backpack.)

Over the past nine days, as I stumbled about, desperately conscious I was not on the straight or narrow, and neither sinner nor saint for being so, I thought about the metaphors that came to mind to describe my ‘fall’ and wondered how it had come to be. I had let myself get too tightly wound, I had become too anxious, I had not blown steam off; when release had presented itself, I had seized the opportunity. I found relief of a sort, but it came accompanied by anxiety and so was not terribly palliative in the end. Strangely enough, I had to return to the scene of my trials, to come full circle, before I could begin to find redressal from my newly acquired affliction.

If all goes well, over the next few days, I will experience a familiar sensation: the easy euphoria produced by making up easily made up (and lost) ground. And then, I will find myself in a familiar space, where progress slows, frustration builds, and the temptation to lose a wheel or two will become stronger than ever. This kind of work, this returning again to the written word, to pages in paper and electronic form, can and will do that to you. (Because a book manuscript completion and submission is at hand, I dread a familiar nausea that awaits me over the next few weeks.) Perhaps, then, I will return and read this post as fair warning of the misery that awaits me were I to succumb to the temptation to take another ‘break.’

The AllRounder Kickstarter

I don’t normally make fundraising pleas on this blog, but I’m going to make an exception to that rule today.

Very soon, I will be contributing articles to a new online sports journal The Allrounder, one to be marked by its thoughtfulness and breadth; it will feature the writing of some 60 different writers, who bring their in-depth knowledge on all facets of world sport:

What can a sociologist tell us about fan violence?

How does a legal scholar view the latest player scandal?

What are the real effects of doping, according to a biochemist?

And what do we learn from the journalist who sits back in the press box, looks around and asks: Why do we watch these games anyway?

The Allrounder will be distinct from existing sports media sites in covering the whole world of sport. The site will feature writers from different countries, whose expertise ranges from basketball, cricket, and hockey to all codes of football. And The Allrounder will aim for the global fan—for the Indian who is up in the middle of the night watching the Champions League, the American who follows Six Nations rugby, the Brit who cheers for the Maple Leafs, the Brazilian with a LeBron jersey, and the Aussie who loves baseball novels.

The Allrounder will also offer a different take on sport. Most of our contributors are academic researchers at universities around the world. The site will bring their insights out of the seminar room and make them available to educated, curious fans—without getting overly theoretical or ponderous. We’ll be smart without being stuffy or snide.

Here is a list of contributors (including some links to our work and latest scholarship; here is a digest of articles currently available on The Allrounder; it includes a piece of mine on American sports coaches) and here is a very good interview with Yago Colas that further explains what The Allrounder is attempting to accomplish.

If this sounds interesting to you, please consider donating to our Kickstarter.

Rust Cohle and Naked’s Johnny

As I watched Rust Cohle in True Detective, it occurred to me he reminded me–in some ways–of another character I had found memorable; Johnny in Mike Leigh‘s Naked, . Johnny doesn’t seem to have a quite as philosophically inflected take on life as Cohle, but his dialogue delivery makes his lines epics of rage and dry cynicism.

As Roger Ebert described him:

From the way he talks and certain things he refers to, we gradually conclude that he has had an education – is an “intellectual,” in that his opinions are mostly formed from words, not feelings….It’s not that we like him or approve of him, but that we must admire the dogged way he sticks to his guns and forges ahead through misery, anger and despair.

The Wikipedia entry for Naked notes:

Intelligent, educated and eloquent, Johnny is also deeply embittered and egotistical: he will fight and provoke anyone he meets to prove his superiority. His tactics of choice in verbal interaction are based on a particular form of intellectual bullying, uniformly directed at people less cultured than himself, and summed up in domineering, scholastic barrages drawn from eclectic sources. His overall behaviour is reckless, self-destructive and at times borderline sadistic, and shows a penchant for aggressive sexual domination at least twice throughout the film. He seduces Louise’s flatmate, Sophie, simply because he can, but soon gets tired of her and embarks on an extended latter-day odyssey among the destitute and despairing of the United Kingdom’s capital city.

During his encounters in London’s seedy underbelly, Johnny expounds his world-view (which in different instances seems to be fatalistnihilist or transhumanist) at long and lyrical length to anyone who will listen, whether Archie, a Scottish boy yelling “Maggie!” at the top of his voice he comes across in Brewer Street, or Brian, a security guard of acres of empty space, ‘a post-Modernist gas chamber’, whom Johnny marks down as having, ‘the most tedious job in England’.

Johnny’s condition[edit]

It is subtly hinted throughout the movie that Johnny’s unusual personality and behaviour could be the result of a variety of (presumably undiagnosed and untreated) medical conditions, including manic depression and whatever it is that causes him to experience episodic, severe headaches. In the scene in the top room of the flat, where an obviously concussed Johnny mistakes the landlord for someone else, Johnny seems to portray a young boy fearful of physical and maybe even sexual abuse from an adult, hinting also at a probable very early cause for his outlook and behaviour. These conditions are certainly affecting him physically, so much so that one of the characters he meets thinks he is about 40 years old, when he is only 27.

 Here are some of his epic rants.

Exhibit #1:

Louise: How did you get here?

Johnny: Well, basically, there was this little dot, right? And the dot went bang and the bang expanded. Energy formed into matter, matter cooled, matter lived, the amoeba to fish, to fish to fowl, to fowl to frog, to frog to mammal, the mammal to monkey, to monkey to man, amo amas amat, quid pro quo, memento mori, ad infinitum, sprinkle on a little bit of grated cheese and leave under the grill till Doomsday.

Exhibit #2:

Louise: So what happened, were you bored in Manchester?

Johnny: Was I bored? No, I wasn’t fuckin’ bored. I’m never bored. That’s the trouble with everybody – you’re all so bored. You’ve had nature explained to you and you’re bored with it, you’ve had the living body explained to you and you’re bored with it, you’ve had the universe explained to you and you’re bored with it, so now you want cheap thrills and, like, plenty of them, and it doesn’t matter how tawdry or vacuous they are as long as it’s new as long as it’s new as long as it flashes and fuckin’ bleeps in forty fuckin’ different colors. So whatever else you can say about me, I’m not fuckin’ bored.

Exhibit #3:

Johnny: Has nobody not told you, Brian, that you’ve got this kind of gleeful preoccupation with the future? I wouldn’t even mind, but you don’t even have a fuckin’ future, I don’t have a future. Nobody has a future. The party’s over. Take a look around you man, it’s all breaking up. Are you not familiar with the book of Revelations of St. John, the final book of the Bible prophesying the apocalypse?… He forced everyone to receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead so that no one shall be able to buy or sell unless he has the mark, which is the name of the beast, or the number of his name, and the number of the beast is 6-6-6… What can such a specific prophecy mean? What is the mark? Well the mark, Brian, is the barcode, the ubiquitous barcode that you’ll find on every bog roll and packet of johnnies and every poxy pork pie, and every fuckin’ barcode is divided into two parts by three markers, and those three markers are always represented by the number 6. 6-6-6! Now what does it say? No one shall be able to buy or sell without that mark. And now what they’re planning to do in order to eradicate all credit card fraud and in order to precipitate a totally cashless society, what they’re planning to do, what they’ve already tested on the American troops, they’re going to subcutaneously laser tattoo that mark onto your right hand, or onto your forehead. They’re going to replace plastic with flesh. Fact! In the same book of Revelations when the seven seals are broken open on the day of judgment and the seven angels blow the trumpets, when the third angel blows her bugle, wormwood will fall from the sky, wormwood will poison a third part of all the waters and a third part of all the land and many many many people will die! Now do you know what the Russian translation for wormwood is?… Chernobyl! Fact. On August the 18th, 1999, the planets of our solar system are gonna line up into the shape of a cross… They’re gonna line up in the signs of Aquarius, Leo, Taurus, and Scorpio, which just happen to correspond to the four beasts of the apocalypse, as mentioned in the book of Daniel, another fuckin’ fact! Do you want me to go on? The end of the world is nigh, Brian, the game is up!

Brian: I don’t believe that. Life can’t just come to a stop.

Johnny: All right, I’m not saying that life will end or the world will end, or the universe will cease to exist. But man will cease to exist! Just like the dinosaurs passed into extinction, the same thing will happen to us! We’re not fuckin’ important! We’re just a crap idea!

Jacob Bronowski on the Missing Shakespeare of the Bushmen

Jacob Bronowski–who so entertained and edified many of us with The Ascent of Man–was very often a wise man but he was also Eurocentric, a weakness that produced astonishingly reductive views about the ‘East’, about ‘uncivilized’ and ‘uncultured’ societies. This inclination is noticeably on display in his dialog The Abacus and the Rose,¹ in the course of Professor Lionel Potts–making Bronowski’s case–introduces Dr. Amos Harping  to the beauty and creativity and cultural significance of science:

HARPING: Who will assert that the average member of a modern society is more fully human, or more alive, than a Bushman, an Indian peasant, or a member of one of those poignantly surviving primitive peoples with their marvelous aert and skills and vital intelligence?

POTTS: Who will assert what? I assert it, Amos Harping. I assert that the average man who drove our train up here is more human and more alive than any of your poignant primitive people. The skills of the Bushman, the vital intelligence of the Indian peasant? You are tipsy with sentiment, Harping, or you would not compare them with the  man who reads your proofs. The Bushman and the peasant have not been cowed by science, Harping. They  have failed in culture: in making a picture of the universe rich enough, subtle enough–one that they can work with and live by beyond the leve of the Stone Age. They have failed because they did not create a mature view of nature, and of man too, Harping. My God, you talk, you dare to talk, of their marvelous art. Since when have you been an admirer of Bushman art, Harping?

HARPING: That’s a pointless question, Potts. I have always admired it.

POTTS: Then why did you give me Rembrandt when I asked you for a painter?  Why do you, Dr. Amos Harping, lecture to your students about George Eliot and not about Indian folk poetry. Because you know that Rembrandt is a more mature artist than any Bushman, and George Eliot than any folk poet. I don’t understand you, Harping. How can you be so blind to the evidence of your own practice? You try to enrich the emotional appreciation of your students–how? By discussing Shakespeare with them; and Joseph Conrad, and D. H. Lawrence. How does it happen that Shakespeare was not born in the bush–or Conrad or Lawrence? Every work that you present to your students as masterly, as profound and sensitive, was produced in a society with a high standard of technical sophistication….Do the great works of man ever come from the poignant primitive peoples? Do they even come from the poor whites of Tennessee, from the stony fields of Spain, or from the starveling fisheries of Sardinia?….Where were the books written that most deeply express and explore the humanity of man? In the Athens of Sophocles, in the Florence of Dante, in the England of Shakespeare. Yet these were not simple, ascetic societies…they were the most highly developed technical and industrial societies in history.

I will leave these excerpts here without comment, except to note Saul Bellow‘s “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus” quote and Ralph Wiley and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ responses.

Notes:

1. Bronowski, J. 1965. “The Abacus And The Rose,” reprinted in J. Bronowski, Science And Human Values. 2d ed. New York: HarperCollins.

True Detective: Eight Points of Contention

I finished watching True Detective last night. I found the finale deeply disappointing but I can’t say that I was surprised; the show had seemed incapable, over the last few episodes, of sustaining the portentousness it had built up in the first three or so installments. I still think the show was outstanding, but I don’t think it delivered on the promises it held out as it began (and it especially did not capture the tragic mood of the haunting title sequence; see #1 below.)

Here are some observations, in no particular order, that attempt to sustain that claim:

1. I understood True Detective to not be a murder mystery but rather a tragedy about two deeply flawed men; given that, the ending was hokey and cliched, descending into Hollywood-style redemption, sweetness and light. The finale should have ended with the ‘final showdown’ in Carcosa. This failure was made even more acute with the contrast provided by the opening few minutes of ‘Form and Void‘, which were absolutely chilling and showed True Detective at its best.

2. There was a brooding Gothic atmosphere in the first four episodes that faded away in the last four; from the moment the show jumped to 2002, it lost its distinctive mood and became more conventional.

3. Matthew McConaughey‘s acting intensity started to diminish; I think he was struggling with maintaining the Cohle facade and the strains of that showed in the last couple of episodes. By the end, even his make-up mask seemed like it was fading and slipping.

4. The show’s template was a little well-worn: angry, violent, male detectives, serial killers, female victims, abusive families, small-town USA as locale for horror. (I hope that in its forthcoming seasons we see interesting and distinctive variations on these, including some different periods as well.)

5. Cohle‘s invocation of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche–among others–was well-done in parts, but also felt forced at times.

6. Disappointingly, nothing was ever made of Audrey Hart‘s drawings; this was a strange red herring to throw into the mix. Especially because Mart Hart consistently showed himself to be such an unhinged, violent protector of his female ‘property’: his assaults on Lisa‘s date, Cohle, Audrey’s boyfriends.

7.  The epic six-minute gunbattle in ‘Who Goes There?‘ A wonderful, dramatic, action-packed sequence that wasn’t all that consequential in the ‘resolution’ of the plot. It didn’t have to be; but it would have been nice to have had that scene invested with a greater importance.

8. The detective work that Marty puts on show in the season finale could have made more appearances; all too often, the clues that came Hart and Cohle’s way were all too easily obtained. Two classic instances of this: a) Charlie Lange provides valuable clues on three separate occasions; each time, he is abruptly drafted in to provide these and then shunted out, his task of providing momentum to the show’s narrative accomplished b) we are asked to believe that a geriatric lady, living in an old-folks residence, not only remembers a paintjob from many years ago, but also the color of the paint used, and a distinctive facial feature on one of the painters.

In the end, True Detective was still a very good television show, but the promise it held out initially wasn’t realized.