18 February 2010

The utility of postmodernism

There is a marked tendency to dismiss postmodernism as being useless – a sort of empty set of theories disguised with opaque jargon. But postmodernism is at its heart a theory based around the essential subjectivity of our words and the rules we construct to govern our knowledge. And a serious investigation into the nature of postmodernism reveals that this theory has very much to offer us, with its fruits being greater than the nihilistic negation which is often ascribed.

In some respects, the blithe contempt of critics is justified. When some try to use postmodern tools to evaluate the objective sciences, such as physics and biology, they seldom find much worth the reading. While these disciplines are bound by some arbitrary rules and closeted by language in some ways, the problems of these strictures are seldom overlooked by scientists. Taxonomy, for instance, is an entire system of partially arbitrary classifications, but taxonomists are keenly aware of this and constantly propose changes to compensate. Postmodernism critiques subjective aspects of our knowledge, and incidents like the Sokal affair illustrate how little useful material there is to be found in the subjective investigation of objective science.

In the humanities and social sciences, however, postmodernism can prove a highly effective and insightful theory. The perception that it clears the theoretical table with a sweep of the arm and says, “Well, this was all really nothing,” is not accurate. Rather, it specializes in looking at the way in which we arrive at conclusions, and how these conclusions are built from materials that are ultimately shaky.

The study of Arthurian literature is an excellent example. For many years, literary theorists had examined the various Arthurian works by Mallory, Cretien de Troyes, and others, looking for the ur-text.

The idea was that there was a single Arthurian source, which gave the essentials of some of the stories or of the hero himself. Many people had taken one side or another of the years, arguing for the predominance of one idea of Arthur or the fact that a particular folk-tale preceded another in history. But the postmodernist Jean Baudrillard pointed out that this was a search based on the false premise that there had to be an ur-text. It was the postmodern approach that suggested this to him.

Postmodernism suggests that any given word or set of meanings derives from an imprecise definition in terms of other meanings, which are themselves imprecise. 

This endless circle of houses-upon-sand was called différance by Jacques Derrida, the founder of postmodernism. And this approach led Baudrillard to realize that the Arthurian stories might have evolved in a similar way, absent any single dominant source.

Postmodernism is very useful. Detractors who dismiss it without understanding it are robbing themselves of tools.

12 February 2010

I unpack "A Serious Man"

So now I'm going to talk about A Serious Man, the Coen Brothers movie released this past year.  It was without a doubt the best movie of this past year, but there is no chance of it winning Best Picture.  This is terrible.  Here is my interpretation of this brilliant movie.  I haven't seen anything similar, even though I think it's a fairly straightforward view, because the movie received so little press.

A Serious Man is a modern-day retelling of Job.

It opens with a bizarre and seemingly unrelated story: a peasant couple in the old country get a visitor who may or may not be a traditional Jewish zombie.  The husband thinks the visitor is just a kind neighbor, but the wife tries to prove herself right by stabbing the visitor.  The visitor staggers off into the night, and we never know the truth of it.  This will later prove to be essential for setting the mood and as a version of the movie in miniature.

The main plot of the movie presents the story of Larry Gopnik, a Jewish professor of physics whose life is falling apart.  Among other things: his wife loves another man, someone is interfering with his tenure with anonymous vile letters, and his brother is so eccentric as to be useless.  Larry still does the right thing, however, and tries to be a good man - a "serious man," in the words of the film.  He resolutely refuses to snap.  We wait and wait, anticipating a fracturing that never comes.  Under continual duress, Larry pays for the funeral of his wife's lover, bails his brother out of jail, and still maintains himself.  Only when he receives a bill to pay for his wife's expensive lawyer for her pending divorce action does he crack slightly, accepting a bribe from a student.

Larry seeks the advice of three rabbi in the film, to tell him what is the right thing to do.  The first rabbi is a young and idealistic one, who answers Larry's serious questions about his life with a smarmy speech about how the wonder of God is to be found everywhere - even in the parking lot outside.  The implication is that Larry is being shallow in some way for his griefs, a message that seems particularly puerile after watching Larry's progress grinding through one misery after another with wide-eyed exasperation.

The second rabbi tells Larry a long fable about a dentist who finds hidden messages in a man's teeth.  The story is neat and clever, following the traditional rule of three, but ending abruptly without the witty answer one expects.  It's a fable without an Aesop at the end.  When asked what it meant, the second rabbi snorts, "How do I know?!"  It's silly to ask what it means, is the implication of the second rabbi.

The third rabbi is never seen by Larry, but only by his pot-smoking son.  This rabbi is held as the sage of sages, who we are led to believe can solve all of Larry's problems with a wise word.  But Larry can never see him, despite pleading and begging for answers at his gate.  Larry's son only sees him at the conclusion of the film, when the third rabbi returns the boy's tape recorder and delivers some words of glib wisdom culled from the Jefferson Airplane song the son had been listening to at the start of the movie.

Larry is given blow after blow, enduring the loss of his wife, his home, and threats to his future career prospects (although he seems to be getting tenure in the end).  And when he seeks answers, all he finds are pleasantries, meaninglessness, and silence.

Larry is Job.  Like Job, everything is stripped from him.  It's less straightforward than in the Bible, because he doesn't literally lose everything and isn't reduced to bitter ashes and sackcloth.  That's part of the message of this intensely personal movie: things aren't so simple and easy.  The beauty of Yahweh doesn't solve everything when you have real problems, and life is a story without an easy moral as far as we can see.

The movie seems to be deeply religious, and the Coen brothers appear to be expressing a faith in their God  There are hints that we will find out everything in the end - that the story isn't over.  As the film ends, Larry is getting some terrible news about his health, and a tornado approaches his son's school.  Given the progress of his life, we can only assume that Larry will suffer horribly, and his son will die.  And after death: that is when Larry will get to speak to the third rabbi: the man with the answers and the wisdom to solve everything.

This is a movie that denies the essential storybook nature of movies, and of the Job story upon which it is based.  Not only do bad things happen without any dramatic resurgence by the protagonist, but it's implied we haven't even reached the end of his decline yet.  There is no simple structured implication by a character or by the editing of the movie to give a moral or a meaning to everything Larry suffers, except for the most basic meaning there could be: he'll never find out the moral while he lives.  Yahweh does not show up to cure everything Job has suffered.

Of the words of comfort offered by spiritual counsel, we get mostly nonsense and empty words.  Larry never hears that which could have helped him perhaps make senses of his problems, the whispered repetition of the third rabbi who shuts him out:

When the truth is found to be lies
And all the joy within you dies

Don't you want somebody to love
Don't you need somebody to love
Wouldn't you love somebody to love
You better find somebody to love

11 February 2010

Anthony Bourdain's "Kitchen Confidential"

One of the books that rode high on the tide of the new American foodie movement of the late 90s - the same trend that transformed the Food Network from a serious hobbyists' channel to a trendy chef-of-the-month showcase - Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential is a great read on its own merits, for the culinary insights, and for appreciating the influence it has had on our culture.

The autobiography is mostly linear as Bourdain describes his long involvement with food and the New York kitchen scene.  He is equal parts reverence and edginess, with loving descriptions of a favored colleague followed by coarse descriptions of drug-fueled outrages.  He never stints with either approach, and effectively communicates the passion that goes into a rediscovered calling.  About halfway through his journey, Bourdain begins to break away from the main narrative into tangential chapters about his associates or particular approaches to food.  One memorable chapter is a delightfully detail-filled description of a single day as an executive chef, where his easy spinning of the thousand worries shows more of his long familiarity and less a concern with impressing the reader.

I find one common flaw with expert-written descriptions of a "scene" is that they tend to be blinded by experience - the way they do it works, and that's the best way in their eyes.  Even experts who admit of alternatives usually spend time justifying their own superiority.  This is understandable.  But Bourdain avoids this pitfall by devoting an entire chapter to worship of a chef that he happily proclaims his superior, and detailing exactly how different is his rival's technique.

The latter portion of the book includes a travelogue about a trip to Japan, and it reads just like one of his episodes of No Reservations, the television show on the Travel Channel.  It even includes the element that makes the early episodes of his show so much better than the later ones: the sense of apprehension and appreciation of the exotic.  It must be hard for Bourdain to be nervous or enraptured after his extensive travels and astonishing experience, so he can be forgiven the loss of his sense of fear and wonder.  But this section of the book reflects not just on his first trip to Japan, but his first real experience with anything Asian.  It's wonderful.

I recommend this book; check it out.

07 February 2010

Five Reasons to support Palin 2012

I just watched her impassioned, scattershot speech at the Tea Party Convention. She especially shied away from direct commitment to running for President in 2012. Here are some reasons why I support her campaign, and think you should too:
  • Not only would we have a First Gentleman, we'd also have a First Daughter Baby-Daddy. Palin isn't even governor anymore, and Levi's still making news on Entertainment Tonight. Think how awesome it would be to see him on his own reality show, as he drives in his pickup to the White House to pick up his son for their weekly visit.
  • Being President means Palin would spend less time with her children. If you won't support her for her own sake, support Palin for the sake of her children. It's only going to do them good to get her away from them.
  • It would only be for two years anyway. When it got tough being Governor of Alaska, she quit. Alaska has a part-time legislature, distributes money taken from oil companies to all of its citizens, and consists of 0.002% of the national population. If she couldn't hack running that, how long do you think she'd last in the big seat? So even if you don't like her, you're not due for a full four years of it.
  • If you don't support her, you hate special-needs children and love taxes. That's just a fact, just like how failing to support Obama meant you were a racist.
  • Executive orders will be issued entirely on Facebook. "Sarah Palin reinstates Don't Ask, Don't Tell: you gays get away from my son" and "Sarah Palin orders drilling for oil anywhere it's sandy" and "Sarah Palin just bought a new goat on Farmville!"

05 February 2010

Richard Shelby (R-AL) blocks all executive appointments for pork

He must have counted on keeping this a secret, because it is astonishing. Talking Points Memo summarizes adequately:
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) has put an extraordinary "blanket hold" on at least 70 nominations President Obama has sent to the Senate, according to multiple reports this evening. The hold means no nominations can move forward unless Senate Democrats can secure a 60-member cloture vote to break it, or until Shelby lifts the hold.


According to the report, Shelby is holding Obama's nominees hostage until a pair of lucrative programs that would send billions in taxpayer dollars to his home state get back on track. The two programs Shelby wants to move forward or else:
- A $40 billion contract to build air-to-air refueling tankers. From CongressDaily: "Northrop/EADS team would build the planes in Mobile, Ala., but has threatened to pull out of the competition unless the Air Force makes changes to a draft request for proposals." Federal Times offers more details on the tanker deal, and also confirms its connection to the hold.
- An improvised explosive device testing lab for the FBI. From CongressDaily: "[Shelby] is frustrated that the Obama administration won't build" the center, which Shelby earmarked $45 million for in 2008. The center is due to be based "at the Army's Redstone Arsenal."
It's been corroborated by the Financial Times and the Alabama Press-Register - the latter of whom appears to have gotten the scoop in the first place earlier today.

This is about as blatant as you can get. Shelby put 70 anonymous holds out, blocking the appointment of every pending executive nominee. The GOP has been doing this for most of the past year, with various holds being used as blackmail and holding up the appointment of such offices as the head of the Transportation Security Administration. This single Senator has decided that getting blatant pork projects for his state is more important than governing the country.

"The Love of an Orange" by Dahlia Ravikovitch

An orange did love
The man who ate it.
A feast for the eyes
Is a fine repast;
Its heart held fast
His greedy gaze.

A citron did scold:
I am wiser than thou.
A cedar condoled:
Indeed thou shalt die!
And who can revive
A withered bough?

The citron did urge:
O fool, be wise.
The cedar did rage:
Slander and sin!
Repent of thy ways
For a fool I despise.

An orange did love
With life and limb
The man who ate it,
The man who flayed it.

An orange did love
The man who ate it,
To its flayer it brought
Flesh for the teeth.

An orange, consumed
By the man who ate it,
Invaded his skin
To the flesh beneath.

03 February 2010

From a letter by Hemingway to Fitzgerald

To me a heaven would be a big bull ring with me holding two barrera seats and a trout stream outside that no one else was allowed to fish in and two lovely houses in the town; one where I would have my wife and children and be monogamous and love them truly and well and the other where I would have my nine beautiful mistresses on 9 different floors and one house would be fitted up with special copies of the Dial printed on soft tissue and kept in the toilets on every floor and in the other house we would use the American Mercury and the New Republic.

02 February 2010

Toxic Advice

It's pretty disgusting when conservatives pull this maneuver.  It's mentioned in this Democratic Strategist article about Peggy Noonan's latest column, noting that the trick is "designed to attack what he is doing while professing sympathy for his challenges."

Noonan's column bears out the criticism, as she offers with regards to Obama's plan:
"'The New Foundation' is solid and workmanlike, but it attempts to put form and order to a governing philosophy that is still too herky-jerky to be summed up."
And she snuck in an anonymous friend of hers doing the same, declaring,
"To heal our country we need to get the arrogance out of the White House and the elitists out of the Congress. We need tough love. We need a real adult in the White House because we don't have adults in the Congress."
This type of toxic advice is frequently found in the pages of Politico these days, an institution that has been notable for becoming worthless the exact moment when it entered the mainstream (when Obama gave them a chair in the press room). I hate it the pretension of it, with someone giving advice that clearly opposes everything the advisee intends or believes.

If Obama really wants to pass health care reform, then he should have the good sense to give up on Washington and its endless bureaucracy, and instead cut off his toes with bolt-cutters. That's the only way we'll ever see real change.