Saul Bellow on Artists and Philosophers

In his two-part essay in the New York Review of Books on being a Jewish writer in America, Saul Bellow is typically uneven. There are some rambling portions (Bellow seems to have a talent for such rambling, nowhere more evident than in this bizarre 1994 New York Times Op-Ed where he attempts to defend himself during the “Tolstoy of the Zulus” flap), accompanied by moments of lucidity:

[Q]uestions that can be closed by philosophic argument often remain open for art, and it is therefore a mistake for writers to accept the preeminence of the philosophers, and write poems, novels, and plays to illustrate, to confirm, to work out in their art and in human detail, the thoughts given to us abstractly by distinguished (and also by undistinguished) thinkers. (Cartesians, Kantians, Hegelians, Bergsonians, Marxians, Freudians, Existentialists, Heideggerians, etc.) Neither the philosopher nor the scientist can tell the artist conclusively, definitively, what it is to be human.

This does not need much commentary except to say that writers who “work out in their art and in human detail, the thoughts given to us abstractly by distinguished (and also by undistinguished) thinkers” often, precisely, by this very act, serve to remind us that an ostensibly “closed” question, remains, in fact, very much open. (I do think Bellow could have said something stronger in his first statement: Questions that appear closed by philosophic argument always remain open for art; it isn’t clear to me indeed, what it would mean for a question to remain “closed” for an artist; what form could such a question take?).

Update: My ever-alert cousin Priya (in comments) pointed out a typo, which I’ve now fixed. Thanks!

Two Bad Ways of Liking Pop Music

Numero Uno: The easy academic way. The interest in pop music needs to contextualized by making your interest and listening pleasure part of a project of aesthetical investigation: What makes a pop song “listenable”? What is the semantics of “catchy”? What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for a track to be “pop”? I realize these are the kinds of questions only an analytically trained philosopher would ask; so we could also, as an alternative, think about framing questions like: What values does pop music seek to inculcate in us? Where did they come from? What is its history? Is pop music just ideology? What power relations does pop music preserve and enable?

Numero Dos: The plebeian, quasi-religious way: Describe your interest and pleasure in pop music as a “guilty pleasure”; this instantaneously grants oneself the virtue of modesty and self-effacement, acknowledges the “sin” involved in listening to pop music (thus rendering oneself distant from the ranks of the unrepetant). So, yes, I have partaken of the pop music temptation, but my heart is in the right place, because I know well enough to feel guilt when I listen to it. Of course, there is little talk of penance (perhaps by listening to all of Chopin’s Nocturnes), so it is unclear how much guilt the guilty really are feeling. The “confession” of this listening pleasure is supposed to indicate the presence of a guilt that cannot be repressed any longer; but I’m inclined to think that the reason the offender confesses is that the pleasure cannot be.

Getting Rid of “Mastery” Over Mountains

A couple of days ago, in response to my post on the language of mountaineering, my friend Karl Steel said (on a Facebook page somewhere, far, far away):

Great piece, but haven’t you shifted the language of battle from climber vs. mountain to climber vs. self? what if we lose the battle or mastery language altogether

Karl is right, of course. And indeed, “losing” the language of “battle” and “mastery” is what I had in mind when I said:

There is something hopelessly naive in this request for reconfiguration of the language. After all, to use the language of “overcoming”, “conquest”, and “assault” works because it props up so many other tropes and fictions: that the summit was possible without any partnership (human or technological) is perhaps the most vivid and urgent of these.

So, to reiterate: I think the language of “mastery” and “battle” persists at heart because mountaineering is fundamentally conceived of as a solo endeavor. Now, even group expeditions can be described in the same language; indeed, perhaps even more so, because more militarized language can kick in: see for instance, the use of “logistics”, “campaign”, “supply routes” and so on. But still, I think, the fundamental act is conceived of as a man, alone, getting on top of the mountain, and it is to address that seemingly individual feat that I think the really heavy-duty arsenal of “overcoming” is deployed.

Interestingly, before commencing my discussion of whether mountaineering language could be reconceived as “self-mastery” I had noted a thought, which I perhaps should have developed further:

But this makes me think of the impoverishment of the language we employ for indicating human accomplishment: perennially pitted “against” something, as having been achieved in opposition to forces ranged against it. Perhaps we are stuck with that language.

I still think that reconfiguring that language requires, more than anything else, reconceiving human accomplishment as not solitary adventures but collective action, a reconception that is required elsewhere in getting rid of the pernicious fallacy of “the author” (a madness that now finds its legal teeth in our modern debates over “intellectual property”). But much, much, more on that later.

Can The Mere Presence Of Police Be An Escalation?

Yes. Here is a familiar scenario: students at an American university call a meeting or an assembly. They congregate, and as they do so, a large contingent of security guards or police, sometimes armed with deadly weapons, sometimes not, show up, and form impressive-looking rings of security, setting up cordons and enclosures. The escalation has begun.

A little while later, one of two things surely will happen: either a student will note the presence of the police, and finding it bothersome and offensive (as it is), will address it in something he or she says. Perhaps something like “the police are watching us, they want to silence us,” which sets off other student responses of unease and discomfort (many, many students at urban campuses, especially students of color have already had unpleasant interactions with police in the past, and do not, frankly, find that having police or security guards around makes them feel any safer).

Or, the police will suddenly find some reason to enforce some notion of propriety on the student proceedings; this enforcement is almost invariably, carried out heavy-handedly, and violates the rights to free assembly of the students and anyone else present. The latter is what happened last week at Brooklyn College. This violation takes place because those in charge of law and order, always, somehow, are more disturbed and vexed by young folks talking loudly about politics than they are about the status quo – the din of the former is always greater.

One day, campus authorities will come to understand that when students congregate and gather to engage in political conversation, as they often seem to be doing these days (whether at UC Davis, UC Berkeley or Baruch College, CUNY), the only escalation that will take place is going to be due to the presence of campus police; their presence begins the escalation; it does not end it. It is a cause, not an effect.

Today, at Brooklyn College, the Wolfe Institute sponsors an event titled Occupy Wall Street! Occupy Everywhere? Whats Next?. Our biggest worry in organizing the event was the possibility that Brooklyn College administration would again send a large contingent of campus security guards to “oversee” the event, which would inevitably be seen as oppressive and problematic by the students. I’m glad to say, at this moment, a few hours before the event kicks off, that the college President Karen Gould, has agreed to reduce the security profile of the meeting and to let it in proceed in peace.

I will report back on how things went.

Posner on Occupy Wall Street

Over at the Becker-Posner blog, Richard Posner (finally?) turns his attention to Occupy Wall Street. By and large, other than little quibbles about phrasing that accommodates Posner’s extreme market-friendliness, there is little to disagree with here: OWS was inspired by the Arab spring, depressions lead to demonstrations, social media makes organizing easier, the police tactics were tactically flawed, that OWS’ central complaints were “income inequality, lack of jobs, and the baleful influence of the banking industry.” I disagree that occupying public spaces was a mistake; au contraire, there was a vanishingly small chance OWS and its related occupations would have attracted a fraction of the press coverage they did had the protests been limited to sporadic marching and online bluster. A fixed, visible presence capable of acting as the locus of activist energy was always critical in elevating OWS’ profile; without it OWS would have lacked its distinctiveness as a political movement.

But then, at the end, after offering us as reasonable a take as one might expect from the champion of the economic in human affairs, Posner splutters:

Railing against income inequality, job loss, and banking abuses is thus understandable, but it doesn’t do any good. The “Occupiers” are anarchic and disruptive, and the solid middle of American society, which rejects the Tea Party because of its goofy ideas, is likely to reject the Occupy movement because of its style, while broadly sympathetic to its antipathies. But if the movement attracts charismatic leaders amidst a stagnant or worsening economy, it may become a force in American politics

This is a depressingly familiar, reductive, and not very deep summing up of political action: don’t bother protesting because it won’t do any good; good, “solid” people don’t like noise; come back when you have a “charismatic leader.” That is, channel your “anarchic and disruptive” forces into attracting the “solid middle” all the while making sure you march under the flag of that old rescuer of politics: the charismatic leader. So much for changing the political conversation.

OWS should take heart though, from Posner’s contention that they have found sympathetic resonance with the “solid middle” when it comes to their shared “antipathies.” Perhaps even if there is disagreement about prescription and treatment one should be heartened by agreement, on diagnosis and prognosis, across the political and intellectual divide that separates Posner and OWS.

Hope. Eternal. And All That.

College Football Excess

This past weekend while visiting my in-laws in Cincinnati, I watched Michigan take on Ohio State in “The Game”. Michigan won 40-34 even as my Buckeye-crazy sister-in-laws and I cheered the Buckeyes on; shortly after the game ended, Penn State took on Wisconsin, and I, emboldened by having watched my first college football game in years, suggested we cheer for Wisconsin against those Nasty Nittaninnies (the ones whose program sheltered a sexual predator for years); we did not know about the news that Syracuse would soon be sending our way. This morning, the New York Times has an article on Ohio State’s hiring of Urban Meyer for $ 4 million as its new football coach (who will, in addition to coaching football tactics, also be responsible for ensuring his wards don’t make any money for playing football during their college years).

So: the classic television-marketed hype of the “perennial rivalry”, a reminder of another old-friend, behavioral dysfunction (this time in coaches and administration, and not, thankfully, in another-soon-to-be-cliched tale of black athletes gone wild), and lastly a reminder that college football remains another bastion of shamateurism in professional sport.

It might have seemed like quite an action-packed weekend but I suspect it was par for the course in college football, which easily outstrips all other college sports when it comes to hype, money and bad behavior (such is college football’s reliance on the art of the overstatement, that when I tuned in to Monday Night Football last night, I found the NFL’s hype-machine functioning at considerably lower levels). I’m not sure what else could explain my jaded reactions to the Penn State scandal or to the Meyer hiring; I was fashionably cynical about the Michigan-Ohio game hype too, but there there was an actual game to watch and the clearly articulated passion of young fans to bolster one’s possibly-too-mature reactions to the action on the gridiron (I should point out that the older of my two sister-in-laws is a perspicuous enough college football fan to hold her nose when she gets too close to any of its details).

The lure of the amateur in sport is to promise us a vision of the game that is not quite as technocratically “efficient”; college sport taps into that vision, but it in its worst moments, it gives us all the cynicism of sport run like a business, but with a generous helping of hypocrisy and pompous self-assigned rectitude as well. In the meantime, large businesses dedicated to delivering “education” continue to run profitable media-and-sports ventures staffed by their unpaid students.

Of Mountains, “Assault” and “Conquest”

A common reaction of mine when watching mountaineering documentaries is distaste at the accompanying linguistic package: the language of “assault” and “conquer”, directed against and at the mountain. Though many mountaineers have self-consciously forsworn such language (Ed Viesturs makes a point of noting such language in his books even though at times he slips back into it himself), it remains a hard-to-displace trope. After a weekend spent watching several mountaineering documentaries (80 Meters Below the Summit (recounting a Slovakian attempt to climb Kanchenjunga) Cho Oyu: West of Everest, and a World of Adventure Sports documentary on K2), I almost came to see some of its use as unavoidable; the mountaineer sees himself as pitted against an “adversary” or an “opponent” for better or worse, and once the summit is reached, it is hard not to view that task as having resulted from “overcome” or surmounted a “challenge” that has been “mastered”.

But this makes me think of the impoverishment of the language we employ for indicating human accomplishment: perennially pitted “against” something, as having been achieved in opposition to forces ranged against it. Perhaps we are stuck with that language. But mountaineering and the climbing of mountains can be reconceived, as some mountaineers have, as a matter of self-mastery instead (so the “mastering” and the “overcoming” remains but to assuage my clearly old-fashioned sensibility that baulks at conceiving of the mountain as an opponent, we change the “opponent” to an old and familiar friend: oneself).

Reinhold Messner, for instance, makes a great deal of the notion that a mountain helps him, rather than combats him in, fighting a very particular ‘inner battle’; the mountain is not the opponent any more; rather the mountain is the facilitative device by which the mountaineer gets to fight a unique personal battle. The mountain is not the other; it is that which makes the self-mastery possible. It becomes an aid, a partner, a co-author of a particular story told about oneself. Without the mountain, there is no personal story of self-overcoming. It would be silly in this perspective of thinking of having conquered the mountain. Rather, by climbing the mountain the mountaineer conquers something else in himself: fear most likely, but perhaps something else as well.

There is something hopelessly naive in this request for reconfiguration of the language. After all, to use the language of “overcoming”, “conquest”, and “assault” works because it props up so many other tropes and fictions: that the summit was possible without any partnership (human or technological) is perhaps the most vivid and urgent of these. Even Messner, who sought to return mountaineering to the domain of authentic man-versus mountain contests did not disdain every technological trapping that reduced the natural edge of the mountain; if oxygen reduces the height of the mountain, so does warm clothing. And neither did he disdain help in getting to the mountain and in various acts of support (minimal admittedly, but still).

So, in the end, what we really need to reconfigure is the notion of the human achiever and striver as a lonely actor, a desperate fiction at the best of times, but rendered even more transparently false when one considers the truly co-operative nature of adventure and exploration.

Greenblatt, Shakespeare, and the “Intensity of Individuation”

Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare has been sitting on my bookshelves since about 2006, when David Coady, then visiting New York for a study leave, left it behind in my care as he returned to Tasmania (I lie; David’s wife, Diana, included it in a package I was supposed to either mail them or bring with me on my next trip to Australia, and I never did so; so the book is mine now; forgive me, David and Diana). But all that is prelude.

For today, I began reading this purported biography of the Bard, one that aims to make his art comprehensible. (My reading, began, quite naturally, as it does for many New Yorkers, on the subway; in this case, on the Q train, as I headed to Manhattan for some rather mundane chores). As I began, I was struck by the following passage (in reference to Shakespeare’s reworking of sixteenth century morality plays):

Shakespeare grasped that the spectacle of human destiny was, in fact, vastly more compelling when it was attached to not to generalized abstractions but to particular named people, people realized with an unprecedented intensity of individuation: not Youth, but Prince Hal, not Everyman, but Othello.

This is a fine point, nicely put.

First, I like the thought of “the spectacle of human destiny” being “attached” to people; almost as if human beings carried around a stage, a tapestry, of human affairs, fortunes and misfortunes with them, one revelatory of particulars and generalities, capable of telling stories and histories. And each human being, therefore, able to provide a particular perspective on the “spectacle.”

Second, Greenblatt makes us aware of the balancing act that Shakespeare is able to pull off: his characters are realized, indeed, with an “unprecedented intensity of individuation”, and yet, are able to convey the generality of the human spectacle. Indeed, Shakespeare is able to draw an exquisite contrast between the “intensely individuated” character and its ability to make us sense and comprehend broader, universal “truths” about us. As the contrast grows between the highly specific, idiosyncratic, unique character, and its simultaneous familiarity, we are entranced by the artist’s genius. He has managed to introduce us to novelty and particularity, to the familiar and the unfamiliar, all at once. And perhaps more to the point, he makes us aware each person is an “eye on the world” one capable of making us see.

Of Prescriptions and Suggestions

I’m a Crossfitter (if you don’t know what that means, Google can help); like most Crossfitters, I do my workouts at a box. And I happen to think my box, Crossfit South Brooklyn, is the raddest, baddest, box on the planet. Reason #53 for why they are so good is that on the home blog, our coaches (the raddest, baddest see where this is going?) frequently post links that make me think a bit more about food, fitness, and sometimes the state of the planet.

Recently, we were presented with two links, each containing articles on the need to ‘scale back’ ego when confronted with the Rx for a workout i.e., the prescribed weight/reps scheme (Do x reps with y weight, for instance). The reasons for such self-effacement in the face of the specifications of a workout are very good, of course: know your limits, don’t injure yourself, get a good workout at a weight or distance or reps scheme that works for you and gets you the intended training effect and so on.

But it seems to me that this sort of reassurance is not going to be very effective when we take a look at the language involved in this affair.

RxD, remember, means “as prescribed.” That is, this is a prescription. This is not a suggestion (no matter how many times we are told by Crossfit coaches that this is “just a suggestion”). This is what we are prescribed. And when we do not do what is prescribed, we fail to abide by it. A prescription carries a normative weight with it: do this, this way. It doesn’t say: do this in some way you’d like. It is hard not to think that in not following the Rx, that one has, in some way or the other, fallen short. And that is precisely why in the context of Crossfit, to do a workout RxD turns into an aspirational ideal; the day you do it is the day you did the “real workout”, the “workout as it was meant to be”; it is not just the day you got to follow someone’s “mere suggestion.”

Crossfitters’ responses to RxD weights and rep schemes reflect their understanding of this notion of prescription. That is why people ask at their box “Who did this RxD?” And that is why people respond, in an admiring tone of voice, “X was the only one who did that WOD RxD“.

When we do not follow a recommendation or suggestion, we are easily and plausibly viewed as exerting a very good choice; when we do not follow a prescription, we can still have very good reasons for doing so (as in when I do not follow certain social or religious prescriptions) but my actions take on a different hue.

So, I think if the Crossfit ‘community’, such as it is, wants to get people to chill out about the Rx for WODs, it might be worth thinking about using language that discards some of the normativity of the Rx, and moves to something that captures a bit more of the intended “do the right thing for yourself within this framework (that of the WOD at hand)” flavor.

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