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I finally finished Badiou’s Being and Event; I’m not sure I would break his ideas out at job interviews (though any philosophy would probably be out of place at the job interviews I’m likely to have), but I really found it pretty educational and not very implausible. However, I am enough of a partisan of what Badiou elsewhere calls “the little style” in philosophy of logic to want to take his philosophy and recast it in more familiar analytic contexts; one of which is, of course, “context” itself. Since the discovery of “double indexing” by Hans Kamp in the ’60s, the importance of assessing utterances in temporal and locational context (in fact, assessing them in all the different contexts that make essential contributions to their meaning) has bulked large in formal semantics. Context also includes the relevant parts of prior discourse: Kamp’s “Discourse Representation Theory” and Irene Heim’s “file-change semantics” attempt to demonstrate how anaphoric dependency of a pronoun on an earlier noun phrase works by a process of contextual adjustment.
Finally, context includes the nebulous category of “common knowledge”, what is presupposed by participants in a communicative interaction; theories like the Gricean theory of “implicature” attempt to account for features of discourse that exploit “maxims” of conversational practice to say more than they literally say. However, this side of pragmatics — though it is potentially the most interesting — founders on theoretical problems that do not confront theories of indexicals or other “explicit” context-dependent items. Grice’s work elaborates how we might construct the meaning (that is, the intention in the mind of the speaker which they wish to convey) of a clever double entendre by considering the plain form of the words against the background of conversational dynamics; I once tried to make this dual character of the implicature, our ability to “intuit” its meaning by systematically working it out, clear by drawing an analogy to the “realizability” semantics for mathematical constructivism.
Enter Badiou? Perhaps. Being and Event is thoroughly opposed to mathematical constructivism of the intuitionistic variety and also to the less-commonly-explored implications of “constructibility” in set theory (he misses a chance to include “minimal” logic — the subintuitionistic logic which excludes the rule ex falso quodlibet, “conclude anything you like from a logical falsehood” — at a place in such considerations where it would have been appropriate, but it is of limited mathematical interest anyway). Badiou exults the power of “generic sets”, sets inconstructible by specification conditions but which can be approached sidelong through the technique called “forcing”: to him, they are ontologically equivalent to the field of truths, which cannot be collapsed into mere knowledges amenable to constructivistic-nominalistic treatment. Now, the reader may say, “What could this possibly have to do with context in semantics? Badiou is not especially sympathetic to the idea of language as the major determinant of thought anyway.” I think it might be important (in no very fetishistic way) to consider one such possible connection.
Robert Stalnaker has formalized some of the above pragmatic considerations by speaking of a “context set”, a set of possible worlds compatible with the information which has been presented to date: context change changes the context set. Perhaps the context set is a “generic set”, and instead of “what is said” in an utterance directly or through implicature being solely a matter of the appropriate constructions we enter the domain of Badiou’s “truth-procedures”, where “militancy” and “fidelity” to the truth are important (rather than merely oodles of bon sens). On this view, determining the symbolic valences or “poetic meaning” of an utterance would be equivalent to Badiou’s definition of scientific truth as a practical application of “forcing conditions” being compatible with a statement extending our knowledge: not forced on us by an irresistible Logic Of The Real, but a selective, partially unsystematic, and perhaps in a very properly Freudian sense partially unconscious process that still yields meaningful results.
I swear that twenty-five percent of my YouTube time is spent with Big Daddy Kane’s “Ain’t No Half Steppin”.
Brilliant stuff, sure, but I particularly appreciate the titular Westerns reference — there was a period of time where I was amused by “trigger” symbolism in rap (“I’m paranoid, sleeping with my finger on the trigger”, “buck, buck wild with the trigger”, etc.) for reasons the older Wittgenstein probably would have disapproved of.
A useful link: Howard Zinn explains why voting for a major-party candidate is neither a terrible idea nor the answer, exactly as accessibly as you’d expect.
The dust has settled a little on the Northern Illinois University school shootings, but the progress of the inquiry into the circumstances behind the shooting may cause additional bewilderment for some. A day after the shootings, police told the public that the still-unnamed gunman had “stopped taking his medication” and was acting erratically — fitting in nicely with the pattern established by the barely-human, though very Asian, Cho Seung-Hui. But the shooter turned out to be one Steven Kazmierczak, a former student and UIUC graduate student fondly remembered by his professors and who had claimed a commitment to “social justice” drove his criminological research. There are signs of trouble: former fellow employees who remembered him as “someone who shouldn’t be trusted with kids”, a painful breakup with his girlfriend, a dark side evinced by grisly tattoos covering his arms and a fondness for violent computer games. However, all in all, it seems that most of Mr. Kazmierczak’s life was close enough to the American average that public figures do not have the stomach to damn him to a far circle of hell.
If we turn to intellectual analyses of such violence, one recent contender comes up quite short in the face of these events. In 2005, the German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger wrote a much-talked-about essay on “the radical loser”, the figure at the edge of contemporary society prone to immolating his life and those of others due to failure-induced unhappiness. He claims that the unfulfilled and unfulfillable promises of modern “Western” society breed terrible misery among those unable to keep up, and a natural “coping” mechanism is to cloak their failure in the bold rhetoric and simulated politics of terrorist organizations. Enzensberger is an acclaimed poet and long-time “man of the left”, but like a Christopher Hitchens with actual accomplishments he has drifted rightward: and in truth, this essay could only be charitably but realistically described as “something out of a future musical about 9/11”.
Why is it so terrible? Because it is only sociologically realistic about the attitudes of the privileged few to whom Enzensberger belongs. Humanity has a long history of experience with immiserated fractions of society, but the surprising thing is how rarely they strike back at those controlling them. Planned, systematic violence against others takes time, economic wherewithal, and an overweening sense of self-esteem that the “wretched of the earth” are unlikely to have. Were the 9/11 bombers the dregs of the “Arab street”? No, they were boys from nice homes who had the opportunity to travel the world, explore further education, and learn to disdain their European “benefactors”. It seems to me that describing the perpetrators of mass killing as “losers” falsifies the facts in a convenient way: they certainly think they are “winners”, and perhaps with some reason.
In fact, perhaps what is being evaded is the closeness in “social space” between terrorists and killers and those who most loudly decry them. Is it really an accident that the Virginia Tech killer’s sister went to Princeton and then on to an administrative role in the Iraq occupation? It hardly could have escaped his notice. And when we turn to the somewhat more sympathetic NIU shooter, we don’t want to notice that the “good” choices he made put him in a more volatile situation and frame of mind than that of a shiftless drifter. The medications he was taking turned out to be the anti-anxiety drug Xanax and the anti-depressant Prozac, both drugs with well-established links to violent behavior if you take them. The book he mailed to his ex-girlfriend was Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Anti-Christ, which young intellectuals (even “leftist” ones) are encouraged to prefer to Das Kapital, encouraged to “puzzle out” its “critique of morality”. In many ways, Steven Kazmierczak was a “radical winner”, someone whose successes caused unbearable friction with his personal problems. And unlike with the radical loser, getting to a humane viewpoint of such problems (one capable of defusing these potentially tragic conflicts) will require a total analysis and critique of society, rather than half-assed excoriation of buzzkills.
Now, a few personal observations. One of the reasons I went into mental health treatment voluntarily was to give a person with an established track record of behavioral problems room to breathe; another was to telegraph to interested parties my total disinterest in acquiring firearms (which I don’t know how to use, either). I know first-hand that psychiatric medications have powerful and by no means entirely salutary effects on your thought processes, moods, and overall brain health if you try to go “cold turkey” but also if you continue to take them, and I don’t think anyone regularly taking them should be allowed anywhere near guns, like us schizoids currently aren’t. And I think it stands to reason that people often frustrated in their desire to buy things in stores, walk down the street, or chat up members of the appropriate sex without incident are going to have some grievances — but it is disingenuous to confuse them with the entitled and self-authorized “go-getters” who (possibly because they secretly can’t cope) are going to decide you’re beneath their concern, perhaps in extreme ways. Think carefully about what kinds of “creative destruction” you want to countenance, on pain of finding something or someone you care about creatively destroyed.
Here’s another installment in the intermittent series on “theoretical abstentionism”. In Portland, 2007 was the year of the Great Fur Protests. When venerable Portland furrier Schumacher’s moved into a new location downtown, local animal-rights activists got on the move as well; they conducted protests every Saturday to drive away Schumacher’s customers. Since the store’s new location was kitty-corner from a light-rail stop I use frequently, I saw those guys and gals time and again: and like many, the impression I formed of their cause and tactics was relatively favorable. Although my empathy for the little animals is relatively limited, my empathy for luxury-goods merchants is more limited, and though some of their informational material was rather grisly the protesters were perfectly polite to passers-by on the street asking what they thought of leather shoes.
After trying to drum up media support and then filing a nuisance lawsuit that got thrown out of court, the Schumachers decided to take their pelts and go home; the protesters celebrated by moving on to the other downtown fur store. Are they going too far, suppressing business and individual choice? Certainly not, I say. People who view protest culture as an inadequate form of political expression, since it couldn’t possibly move the real levers of power except through creating undue civil unrest and intimidation, are (as the hallowed phrase has it) “electoral cretins”. The fur protests are an excellent example of how protests help form political consensus on a popular level: although their cause was not taken up in toto by the larger community, their arguments at the very least helped inform the public consciousness about the real range of values among their fellow-citizens — in a way a newspaper or TV report from the Milan runways is unlikely to do.
Determining for certain whether you are for or against such causes is really secondary to the salutary effects of such efforts at popular education. Rave on, you synthetics-wearing dandelions.
Since I’ve already explained how models of (propositional) modal logic work, I feel comfortable talking about a logical concept that doesn’t get much play in the philosophical world: bisimulation. In computer science, bisimulation relates labeled transition systems, which are a convenient notation for modeling computational processes; an LTS consists of a (possibly infinite) set of computational states and “labeled” transition arrows from one state to another (or back to itself). Two LTSes are “bisimilar” if a relation exists between them which maps the states and transitions of one system onto those of the other, and vice versa. (These sort of methods, known as “back and forth conditions”, play an important role in other sectors of mathematical logic as well.) This bisimilarity preserves computational structure: no “moves” in the computation will be lost by using one of the systems rather than the other.
Since Kripke models of modal logics consist of states (possible worlds) and transitions (the accessibility relation), bisimulation applies to them too. In fact, the specifically “modal” formulas of a Kripke model are the ones preserved by bisimulation: formulas in first-order logic can be true in a model and not true in a bisimilar model, but since the truth of propositional modal formulas depends only on the “local” character of possible worlds and the accessibility relation connecting those worlds, both of which are “mapped” by the bisimulation relation, it cannot vary between bisimilar models. Everybody who is a CS-inflected modal logician thinks this is a big deal: why should anyone else care? Well, I’ve been thinking (very speculative) thoughts about this for a couple of years, and here’s what I can come up with.
I’ve spoken before about David Lewis’ use of a “counterpart” relation of similarity between individuals in possible worlds to analyze modal phenomena like counterfactual conditionals. Now, it seems to me that bisimulation is something like a “global” or metalinguistic counterpart relation, operating on the level of Weltanschauungen rather than possible individuals: and (abstracting away complications introduced by moving to the level of modal predicate logic) this could have lots of important consequences for modal analyses of language and other more “subjective” modal phenomena. For instance, perhaps we might say that two terms of Chomskyan “I-language” are synonymous if the structures of the computational “mind/brains” that realize them are bisimilar, or that two social processes are functionally equivalent if their normative consequences map onto each other in this way.
Obviously this requires a lot more work to be anything other than a suggestive image, but I’ve thought for a while it’s a little unfortunate that newer logical concepts like bisimulation don’t regularly make their way into “rigorous” analytic philosophy. At any rate, it enthuses me quite a bit. (Perhaps determining that the discourses of two people are “bisimilar” and using one to model the behavior of another is just as sophomoric a temptation as a phenomenologist’s urge to put someone under the “epoché” at a party, but on the other hand words and concepts are our own to use, requiring only logical coherence and maybe a little historical good sense.)
The Australian philosopher David Chalmers discovered a few years ago that to his surprise his most-cited papers were not his famous work on consciousness and the possibility of “zombies”, but artificial intelligence papers he wrote as a cognitive science graduate student. I’m no David Chalmers, but similarly the #1 Internet fan favorite out of all my “works” is something I wrote about Philip K. Dick when I was fifteen: “The Mystical Experience in Science Fiction: Philip K. Dick’s Radio Free Albemuth and Valis“, published by legendary Portland scenester Shawn Swagerty in his ‘zine Storefront Bar-B-Q. I still get requests for it, and so I thought I’d add it at the bottom of the Essays page.
If you suspect this super-juvenilia is going to be a little too precious for you, I will mention that at that stage of my life I was working as a semi-pro writer for Portland magazines, so the writing’s really not too bad. The memories aren’t quite all smile-provoking, though: the research for the piece introduced me to the life and death of Ioan Culianu, an expert on Gnosticism who in 1991 was murdered execution-style in the bathroom of the University of Chicago divinity school. Although that’s not really par for the academic course, his example and that of our hero Montague (the victim of a rough-trade beheading that has gone unsolved for over thirty-five years) weighed a little heavily on my mind at certain points in the past.
But if you’re having fun, dear reader, I’m having fun, and I suspect Dickian questions about the veracity of our hold on the world have not a little to do with the intellectual history of someone coming here for putatively grown-up observations. (I’m planning to soon advance to laying out Montague’s concrete linguistic theory rather than just logical prerequisites, but I’m having to do a little “skilling up” with respect to creating inline images of LaTeX versions of the formulas involved.)
I’m not a big believer in the authenticity-making power of coming to grief, but I have to say sometimes I think his Mann Act conviction was the best thing to ever happen to Chuck Berry. This is mostly because of a record I have of ’60s Chuck re-recording his Chess tracks for another label; although the versions don’t quite have the iconic quality of the originals (no Johnnie Johnson, for one thing), like the handful of post-jail Chess hits such as “Nadine” the guitar playing is terrific — angular and open-ended, almost Wes Montgomery-like. His commercial crassness, expressed in his cash-only policy and his tendency to hire weak local bands as backup for concerts, is legendary — however, I’m not complaining about this instance.
I basically learned to talk by listening to Mr. Berry; like the good children of the sixties they were, my parents supplied me with cassettes of old LPs in lieu of the sexy bombast of eighties radio. His humorous wordplay was instantly appealing and probably wholesome for an eight-year-old mind (I’m not exactly sure what parental objective was served by having eleven-year-old Jeff listen to Armed Forces, but that’s another story). But when I got older, I figured Chuck for a “court jester”, forced by American society to Tom it up with race-neutral themes like sock hops; I knew R&B artists like Ike Turner hated him, and his personal travails didn’t inspire confidence. His eventual terminus as a Quentin Tarantino punchline seemed to confirm his irrelevance.
But these days, it seems to me that he was really just sly after all; what he was forced by racist American society to do was to create a modern yet somehow prelapsarian vision of American life, a blueprint for integration; brown-eyed handsome men who certainly could be black, and a picture of everyday life back in the USA artfully smudging out segregation and other essentially extrinsic evils (though leaving in divorce and other topicalities). His direct influence on everything that followed confirms his songwriting genius; but maybe Chuck was also one of the good guys after all.
One area where computer science has it all over philosophy and the social sciences is the amount and quality of free reading material available. Case in point: Robert Tomasulo’s original paper for the instruction-level parallelism algorithm that bears his name, which is at least as readable as Hennessy and Patterson’s exposition (even though it is from the darkest depths of the mainframe era).