December 31, 2007

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, December 2007

Warren Ellis and Stuart Immonen, Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E.: I Kick Your Face
Second (and final?) volume in the saga of misfit superheroes "healing America by beating people up." (First volume.)
Long Way Round
Two minor movie stars travel by motorcycle from London to New York, via the Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, lots more Russia, Alaska, Canada and the US. It's not deep but it's warm-hearted and the scenery in Eurasia is truly beautiful. No buying link because Powell's doesn't seem to sell the DVD.
(It's a banal observation, but the sheer brokenness of the former Soviet Union is truly incredible.)
Kat Richardson, Greywalker
Shamanism (not called that), necromancy and vampires in Seattle.
Margaret Maron, Bootlegger's Daughter
Enjoyable local-color mystery novel, set in just-rural-enough North Carolina. First of a series; I will be tracking donw the rest.
No End in Sight
How we blundered into the catastrophe of the Iraq War. Understated and cool, and all the more enraging because of it. Told very much from the American perspective; such a movie from the Iraqi perspective would be, I suspect, unbearable.
John Carey, What Good Are the Arts?
It would be inaccurate to say that Carey's answer to his title is "bugger all"; but this is only because he admits that making and consuming art can be enjoyable, and he thinks learning to make it can help rehabilitate criminals. (He actually seems a little credulous on the latter score, but it is a matter about which I know nothing so perhaps he's right.)
Carey begins by considering what makes something a work of art, and rejects the idea that certain kinds of objects are just intrinsically artistic, the idea that the intent of the maker is determinative, and the idea that we can rely on the consensus judgment of the art world. (He pays the last the complement of rational opposition, which shows magnanimity.) In the end he says that the only defensible objective definition of "work of art" is a higher-order one: anything that anyone has ever regarded as a work of art. (He avoids terms like "higher order".) This seems to me somewhat unsatisfying on two grounds. First, it leaves him with no way to personally decide what is or isn't a work of art — he can really only say what other people regard as art. The other problem is that he doesn't consider the possibility that something becomes a work of art for someone when they use it in certain kinds of way (or, if you like, relate to it in certain ways), not because of any intrinsic property of the object or any intent on the part of its maker. (I am thinking here of the way John Ellis tries to define "literature".) I am not sure that this is the right approach, but at least if one could say something about what that mode of use is, one could also understand why certain kinds of objects seem to lend themselves to that use more readily than others...
That said, his arguments that there is no rational way to establish an objective, compelling hierarchy of taste or aesthetic merit seem to me sound, and largely independent of the definitional isue. Further he has little trouble on the front that devotion to art does not seem to make people morally better, at least not by any standard of morality which does not, question-beggingly, enshrine devotion to art as such. He is especially good at emphasizing the difficulty of knowing what other people think and feel, and the sheer unpredictable variousness of reactions to works of art and literature, combined with the persistent illusion that the way you take them is the way everyone takes them, or ought to take them. (I suppose the last may not be strictly an illusion.)
Paul Krugman, The Conscience of a Liberal
Krugman explains the current crisis of the Republic: malefactors of great wealth, a vast right-wing conspiracy, and the continuing racist legacy of slavery, one of our two original sins.
Krugman is in fact making a fairly complex argument here about how we got into this mess, involving: changing norms and institutions regarding the rewards of those at the top of the economic pyramid; the formation of movement conservatism, with its mechanisms of coordination and party-line enforcement, significantly funded by a small number of very wealthy families; conscious, effective, and often illegal efforts to weaken unions; the slow-down in economic growth; immigration (which has a small direct effect depressing wages at the bottom of the scale, and a larger political effect of making many of those who live and work here unable to vote); and appeals to "weapons of mass distraction", most importantly race. (On the role of America's racial division in weakening our welfare state, Krugman is more or less in line with Philip Klinkner, though I don't think he's cited.) Remarkably, Krugman is arguing that political and cultural changes have done more to drive economics (via policy) than vice versa; as he says, this was not what he started out thinking when he began the book.
The main point, however, is what needs to be done to try to bring about a society which is mostly middle class, where the rich do not have a disproportionate and corrupting influence, and where the gains of economic progress are in fact broadly shared. The key, Krugman thinks, is to recognize that the forces which stand in the way are not going to be conciliated and not going to be reasonable. This means that a strategy of bipartisan outreach is going to be a dismal failure. (The reasons bipartisanship used to work were (1) the presence of a genuine credible threat to national survival in the form of the USSR, and (2) the fact that the parties were really coallitions of regional parties with distinct ideologies. [Krugman does not go into (1).] Neither of these now obtains.) Instead what is needed, for the time being, is building the institutional supports of a progressive political force and achieving substantive policy victories, which will be opposed tooth and nail. (Krugman favors starting with health-care, for a variety of reasons, moral, political, and economic.) This is clearly not what Krugman wants to be saying; as is clear here, and is clear to anyone who's been reading him since say Peddling Prosperity, he is happiest, as a public writer, when he can even-handedly disabuse both the center-right and the center-left of their fonder and more foolish hopes, secure in the knowledge that both sides basically agree on the shape of a decent polity and are just tinkering at the edges and checking each other. In fact in the early 1990s I think it's fair to say that he spent more time bashing more-or-less left-of-center ideas than right-of-center ones — which he now regards as quarreling with allies while "Sauron was gathering his forces in Mordor". The fact is that we do not have such an option, we will not have it for a long time to come, and we may never have it unless we do in fact succeed in building a powerful progressive movement dedicated to (forgive the phrase, but nothing else fits) 21st-century Americanism.
— Many of the reviews of this book are notably idiotic. Several I've seen claim that Krugman attributes the perception that the Democrats are weak on defense and stabbed America in the back during the Vietnam War to the Rambo movies. This interpretation requires a complete inability to read plain English prose; he is pointing to those movies as a marker or symptom of such attitudes, not their cause. (I would in fact sugest that they probably did play some role in spreading such atitudes to those too young to remember what had happened, including my cohort, but Krugman doesn't go there.)
Others accuse Krugman of not explaining why we should care about inequality; he devotes a chapter to this. In brief: economic inequality inevitably translates itself into social and political inequality, and it inevitably undermines equality of opportunity, since one of the things people are most anxious to use their wealth to buy is a better position for their children — and such purchases are eminently feasible. Our current levels of inequality are not even excusible as a price for faster growth which benefits all, since, as a matter of fact, that benefit to all is not occuring, and the rate of growth has been much slower than when we were a more equal society.
Manuel DeLanda, A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity
I find mysef in more or less complete agreement with this. (I can come up with some quibbles if I must.) The way DeLanda says we should think about social phenomena is very natural and obviously-correct to someone brought up on complex systems and non-muddle-headed notions of self-organization and emergence. (I would argue that these are reductionist in the only sense that matters, but that's one of those quibbles.) I like the word "assemblage" and will cheerfully adopt it. It's true that DeLanda comes to what is (to my mind) the obvious mechanistic-materialist truth by way of Deleuze, which leads to some weirdness in vocabulary and adds nothing of value, but that's under almost complete control here (a few footnotes at worst), and it subtracts nothing either. I am not sure that this really is a new philosophy — I do not see, say, the Popper of The Poverty of Historicism, or even the Dewey of The Public and Its Problems, finding much to disagree with here either, on a purely philosophical plane at least — but so what? It's a really good book and one I will be happily recommending, I think, for many years.
Chris Roberson, Paragaea: A Planetary Romance
An attempt at writing a swashbuckling planetary romance, a la Edgar Rice Burroughs, Flash Gordon or (on a higher level) Leigh Brackett, C. L. Moore or L. Sprague de Camp, which could be read by a grown-up. It's largely successful, i.e. enjoyable on its own terms, as shown by the fact that I read it in a day.
The greatest weakness, to my mind, is the dialogue: it's smooth enough, but it doesn't match the characters. The heroine does not sound much like a cosmonaut from 1964, and the hero does not sound at all like a Napoleonic-era British naval officer. (Having him talk about "cultures", a notion that post-dates him in our world by half a century, was especially jarring.)
Leszek Kolakowski, Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing? 23 Questions from Great Philosophers
The title is somewhat misleading; these are brief expositions of a theme or related themes from the works of 23 major western philosophers, each concluding with a series of questions raised or inspired by that work. E.g., these for William of Ockham:
According to the principles of nominalism, what (its critics asked) is, for instance, a Chopin piano concerto? Is it a piece of paper covered with musical notation? Or is it, perhaps, an event that occurred in Chopin's mind? Or is it every particular instance of its performance?

Does God's absolute omnipotence really entail the consequence that all the moral rules He revealed to us are His arbitrary decree, and that it makes no sense to say that they are good in themselves, independently of being decreed by Him?

Let us assume that God, in His omnipotence, is causing us to imagine everything we experience and think of as real, and that the world of our perception is an illusion. What would be the difference between this world and a real world identical with it in content? How could the reality be described so as to distinguish it from the illusion?

The expositions preceding such questions are simple, clear, engaging, accurate; they are also non-revelatory, but then this is supposed to be a popular work and not original scholarship. I am happy to say that in this book (unlike his previous one), displays Kolakowski's abundant talents as a critic of philosophy, someone who can explain to the reader what a philosopher attempted, and why, and why it might matter to us, without at the same time letting himself be captured by the writer he happens to be explaining.
I think his selections (see below) lean far too heavily to the metaphysical and the obscurantist side of the philosophical tradition, but arguably that's been the dominant one anyway, and while I would read Larry Laudan's (imaginary) Great Thinkers from Frege to Carnap, (a) most people wouldn't and (b) Kolakowski arguably already wrote it (The Alienation of Reason: A History of Positivist Thought from Hume to the Vienna Circle). That said, I do feel there is a certain degree of direction of the reader going on here, especially towards the end as the philosophers become more nearly contemporaries and "live issues". At the very end, in the chapter on Husserl, he writes as follows (p. 222):
Husserl forced us to confront an uncomfortable alternative: either we accept the restrictions of empiricism, turning away from the great philosophical tradition — the search for truth, meaning, and the nature of being — and impoverishing European culture, or we must accept some form of transcendentalism, not necessarily Husserl's reduction and his idealism, but the belief that the human mind can have some insight into being and truth.
Certainly Kolakowski thinks we are faced with this choice, and strongly hints, though he doesn't unequivocally state, that we should go for the second option. But notice that he doesn't say the second option is true, just that it needs to be accepted if certain once-valued cultural traditions are to retain their legitimacy. In other words it is a this-worldly, consequentialist, indeed vulgarly pragmatist argument for transcendentalism! Even accepting the dilemma at face value, one might well feel that an honest continuation of the tradition of devotedly seeking the truth would involve giving up ideas that seem, in retrospect, like wishful thinking...
*: The list goes: Socrates, Parmenides, Heraclitus, Plato, Epictetus, Sextus Empiricus, St. Augustine, St. Anselm, St. Thomas Aquinas, William of Ockham, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Pascal, Locke, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Bergson and Husserl. (The chapters on Pascal, Bergson and Husserl, unsurprisingly, echo the contents of his books on them.) Aristotle, Meister Eckhart, Nicolas of Cusa, Hobbes, Heidegger, Jaspers and Plotinus were part of the original Polish series but omitted from the English translation (LK: "publishers are cruel beasts").
Disclaimer: The publisher sent me a review copy of this book.
The Wire, season 2
Poor D'Angelo. Poor Sobotka. But damn that was good. (I especially liked the scene — how to describe it without spoilers? — at the end of the next-to-last episode, where one of the characters is heading towards a meeting, his trajectory converging with a fateful message, making its way through circuitous routes to the same dismal spot...)
Alfred North Whitehead, Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect
Actually, this is mostly an argument about perception and causality, on the order of normal sense perception being useful in "high-grade organisms" (quoting from memory) because it provides symbols for causal relations which even low-grade organisms can directly perceive. Needless to say, he does not actually succeed in refuting Hume, but it's an interesting and rather valiant attempt, followed by some interesting ideas about how symbolism, in the one-thing-standing-for-another sense, works in organisms.
Carrie Vaughn, Kitty Goes to Washington and Kitty Takes a Holiday
The continuing misadventures of a werewolf named Kitty. (See first installment.) Mind-candy, increasingly bitter-sweet.
Nicholas Gurewitch, The Trial of Colonel Sweeto and Other Stories: A Collection of the Comic Strips of The Perry Bible Fellowship
Discovered via Tim Burke, and immediately devoured after tearing through the website. It's not for everyone, but I find it very agreeably tasteless and twisted, and of course how could I not love this?
The Wire, season 1
So I'm late to the party --- it's really very good. In particular this first season is very like the "Luther Mahoney" story arc from Homicide, only done with much more resources on the part of the story-tellers, and more of the viewpoint of the criminals. (However, making the gangsters' front a strip club seems purely gratuitous.)

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Scientifiction and Fantastica; The Continuing Crises; The Beloved Republic; Philosophy; Complexity; Writing for Antiquity; The Commonwealth of Letters; The Progressive Forces; The Dismal Science; Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime

Posted at December 31, 2007 23:59 | permanent link

Three-Toed Sloth