On Liberty and Civil Society

As far as I've been able to tell from my reading of various right wing political critiques of late, the fundamental fear of socialist policies seems to stem from a concern that socialist policies are a curtailment of liberties. The placards and talking points of the right seem to hover around this idea of loss of liberty and for me, as a socialist, I find that very confusing. The easy answer of course is one I suggested in a previous post, that this stems from false consciousness. That's easy, but on reflection I think it isn't the whole picture. To be sure, there's an element of being misled by ideology in the tea party movement, and there is definitely an aspect of manipulation in the various astroturf groups that have worked to organize people who are involved with the tea party movement. But that doesn't explain all of it. Because for any of that to work, there has to be a fundamental, basic fear that's being tapped into and manipulated, and more to the point I do believe that there are honest, intelligent people who support this right wing movement who are not being manipulated but who genuinely see in socialist policy a threat to liberty. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that in a sense, there is something true about the critique. There is an element to socialism that is a curtailment of liberty. But what sound bite politics of the moment miss is that liberty is such a loaded term that when one speaks broadly about liberty, then one actually says very little at all.

The Disembodied Standpoint; or Why I Don't Take Certain Parts of the Leftwing Blogosphere Seriously and You Shouldn't Either

So I haven't been following #mooreandme closely, because as I've stated before I don't think twitter phenomena are things that really happen, but apparently there's been a dustup in certain quarters based on Sady Doyle's protest over Michael Moore posting bail for Julian Assange. There are a few points I would like to make about this whole crop of nonsense that to me underline my general larger refusal to take those certain quarters seriously.

Point 1: It is fundamentally unjust to draw conclusions about the criminality of a person's actions based on news reports.

Zeitgeist Contretemps: The Weltanschauungen of the Now

Consider: Around five thousand babies will be born before you finish reading this.
At current rates:
Of those babies, something like 750 will die before the age of five.
Children in poor countries are more than 20 times more likely to die before the age of five than children in wealthy countries, which means the vast majority of those 750 children will be born in poverty.
Of the 4250 or so that make it to their fifth birthday, another tenth will die before they are adults, again disproportionately in the poorest countries.
Of the 3800 or so that remain, 80% will live in poverty where poverty is defined as living on less than ten dollars a day.
Most will die before the age of sixty and a significant percentage will die before the age of forty.
Of the 750 who remain, they are the heirs to something on the order of 3/4s of the worlds wealth.
Of those 750, 75 will grow up to control half of the wealth of that group.
Of those 75, 7 will grow up to control a third of the wealth of the richest 75.
These disparities have been steadily increasing over the past 100 years.
Numbers of children who die before the age of 5 have decreased significantly.
Mortality rates for teenagers and young adults have not seen a similar decline.
The World Health Organization tracks infant mortality as the chance of death before the age five.
These two facts make me think of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle.
There are nearly seven billion people living on the planet as of 2010.
This is almost double the population of the earth in 1970.
By the end of the next decade, the population of the earth will be more than triple the population in 1960.
It is 4 AM in the morning, somewhere in North America.
I have steady electricity, central air conditioning, and clean running water.
As a firmly middle class earner, my lifestyle is fairly modest for most Americans, probably about as close to the median for single college educated men as you can get.

The Meaning of Novelty: Convention, Form, Genre and an Existential Crisis

What is a Convention?

Allow me to describe a conception of art based around the twin poles of convention and novelty (which I will resist calling Convention and Novelty, because I am not French). A convention is simply a norm or collection of norms, and all art exists within certain conventions. In the visual arts, applying paint with a brush is a convention of method, and a landscape is a convention of genre, containing its own, respective conventions that can differ from time to time and place to place, as illustrated by the clear differences between traditional East Asian landscape paintings and traditional European ones. (European landscapes tend to be wider than they are high and emphasize the horizon, while East Asian landscapes tend to be higher than they are wide and emphasize scale. Each convention produces a remarkably different effect.) There is no art, or even expression, without conventions of some sort; conventions are the means by which things are expressed, the (sometimes literal, sometimes figurative) vocabulary and grammar we use to convey things. In this sense, conventions are a type of language.

Mind, Body, Spirit, Whatever: The New Poetics of the Metaphysical

Adam Fieled has published a very interesting essay at Word For/Word about what he sees as a needed resurgence of metaphysical concerns in contemporary poetics. I largely agree with his thesis that the poetics of previous generations, in particular those of the American avant-garde of the latter half of the twentieth century, have been overly enmeshed in a variety of materialisms. There are notable exceptions, of course, chief among them I think would be poets of the Beat generation like Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg and a few others from the New York School, most notably Joseph Ceravolo. But in surveying the poetics of the major movements of the last 50 years of poetry, it's clear that in particular the obsessions of post-structuralism and the new criticism with the text as material object have infected a great deal of the late poetries with a pervasive materialism that has created the problems that Fieled notes. I don't want to quibble with the problematization as Fieled conceives it, but I do see a flaw in his historical analysis that I'd like to reformulate because I think it will make clearer those problems as well as help to point out possible approaches to solutions in the search for a way forward.

The God-Machine: A Modest Proposal

Suppose you have a black box. It has two openings, one labeled "Questions" the other labeled "Answers."

No matter what you put into the "Questions" slot, something will come out of of the "Answers" slot. Whatever the "Answers" output is, it is a complete answer to the "Questions" input question.

This is true even if the "Questions" input is not a question. To be clear, anything can be put into the "Questions" slot and will produce a complete answer from the "Answers" slot.

This means that even output from the "Answers" slot could be input into the "Questions" slot, and thereby produce it's own answer.

Again the truth of these answers will always be as reliable as the truth of the answer to the question "If I have one apple and someone else gives me an apple, how many apples will I have?" is "Two apples."

This is even true of questions that are unanswerable, like the halting problem or something of that nature. The black box will never the less produce an answer. The black box is not a computer and is not limited by the limits of computation.

Now, imagine that you do not have access to the "Answers" slot. The answers are being produced to whatever question you are feeding into it, but you cannot see them or know what they are.

That would be frustrating, but you would know for certain that there was an answer, even if you could not see it.

Suppose now, that for some questions, you can figure out the answer yourself. Without observing what the output of the black box is, you can still know what the box will output anyway. This empirical or grammatical fact. Things that can be known through observation or reason.

We have access to these facts, although the black box will not confirm them.

There are other questions that we cannot figure out the answers on our own. Any number of answers could be correct, all of them could be, or none of them could be. We just can't tell because we can't see what the output is.

Logicomix: A Short Review

I just read Logicomix. Very interesting. Should have taken the tractatus more seriously, but that's ok, even a lot of professional philosophers don't understand it.

The impact of World War One on modernity is beautifully captured by a two page layout of Wittgenstein standing in the middle of no man's land and a caption by Russell saying "put a man on the edge of the abyss, and in the unlikely event that he doesn't fall in he will become either a mystic or a madman."

The themes betray a computer scientist's fondness for Turing, algorithms, and computation that if not wholly misplaced is not the answer to everything that many computer geeks think it is.

Yet again i find myself wishing that more people would read Hubert Dreyfuss.

But Dreyfuss himself doesn't understand The Philosophical Investigations point on psychology and in his commitment ot Heideggerean phenomenology founded in metaphysics as opposed to a Wittgensteinian one founded in language, he concedes too much to the model makers.

Atlas Shrugged?

Just a quick note to let people know that I do plan to eventually return to the Atlas Shrugged project. The problem is that I have moved and I can't find my copy of the book. At some point I'll break down and buy another one. But spending money on that trash weighs heavy on my heart and there are so many good books to read...

that having been said, to the jackasses on the Dune forum who were talking about me behind my back? Frank Herbert still couldn't write his way out of a paper bag. Dune is bad because the story stripped of the admittedly wonderful sci fi setting is predictable and boring, the quality of the prose is extremely poor, and the characters are wooden and one dimensional. there's much better space opera out there. Or at least there ought to be because really, there isn't.