You are currently browsing the monthly archive for May 2009.
Here’s a fun one that I’ve been playing a lot: McFadden and Whitehead’s 1979 hit “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now”. I previously addressed certain elements of the populist Philadelphia International sound, and this song has been a campaign song for “left-liberal” campaigns like those of Antonio Villaraigosa and Barack Obama.
An observation: I heard the song on the Tom Kent radio show, which has recently begun broadcasting in Portland as it does in many other radio markets (the show slurs over this a little, with market-specific promos and generalities about where people are). Much as YouTube enabled people all around the world (with broadband) to “share a moment” with music videos, the shake-out of the radio industry in 2009 has standardized sounds all across the US. Hmm.
Now, for a piece of philosophy of mathematics. It’s hard to see how you could take a “sideways-on” approach to mathematics: it is true if anything is, right? Well, maybe we can stretch that out a little further than what is involved in the usual Third Realm calisthenics. A piece of mathematics is something that will be true for all time: mathematical insight means seeing into the ages, what was and ever will be. Conversely, lack of mathematical acuity — our inability to solve a problem — is caused by the deceptions of the age, our follies and delusions.
As regards my own very modest mathematical output, I have adduced considerations that P cannot equal NP in “A Cool Million (Some Thoughts on P and NP)”, “Further Thoughts on P and NP“, and “Why P Cannot Equal NP“. They do not have the form of a formal proof and have failed to convince the contemporary complexity community (as a whole), but it is my honest conviction that the very simple logical difficulties associated with reducing the complexity of DEXPTIME-hard NP-complete problems are insuperable. The considerations are “dumb”, but honestly limitative results always are — the Incompleteness Theorem is a piece of simple trickery that would hold no interest were it not true.
Really, I think the hope that a brand new algorithm will crack the problem is a pipe dream; the essential nondeterminacy of the Satisfiability problem is just untouchable. Why does it appeal, then? Because computer science is about technical control, and the temptation of a computational Eden where all cryptographic algorithms can be cracked and mathematical proofs grow on trees is just too strong. (The harder-headed claim that problems from oracles — which are rather moldy, as they can be read about in the original edition of Hopcroft and Ullman — and other considerations may make the P and NP question impossible to solve, but it may just be our own damn fault for not defining our terms clearly. Always hard to tell.)
Short thought: we all know, even in the absence of real knowledge about the mathematical core of quantum mechanics, that there are different interpretations of its meaning — some of them pretty kooky. My idea: perhaps the upshot of QM is not that early 20th-century scientists proved that reality isn’t real and we should all go study Taoism (which is of a certain independent interest) as our guide to the cosmos, but that they had a sense of unease about things they knew without knowing why they knew them: the body of theory and experiment deriving from new instrumentation did not apperceptively close, the predictive power of certain frameworks (e.g., those deriving from the introduction of matrix methods, which arrived as something of a deus ex machina) could not be satisfactorily explained in terms of a unified theory meeting canons of simplicity. A similar sense of spookiness is to be had sometimes in social life, but that’s a thought for another time.
Two days ago, President Obama announced his nomination of Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court position held by David Souter. I am generally not qualified to assess Ms. Sotomayor’s suitability for the court, but there are two issues I will comment on. Firstly, it seems from the left perspective the questionable aspect of Sotomayor’s rulings to date is abortion rights; the New York Times reports that in 2002 she upheld Bush administration policy denying aid to family-planning programs that support abortion services, and her rulings on immigration from China display a ‘natalist’ attitude to the country’s “one family, one child” policy. It is my considered opinion that all concerned should get Ms. Sotomayor to clearly define her stance on abortion rights; the standard practice of letting potential justices temporize about issues that “may come before the court” is an insult to the American populace.
The second issue I will comment on is Ms. Sotomayor’s now-famous 2001 comment “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life”. Although it is phrased in the optative, this fact has been ignored by the discussion sparked off by it; so I will consider the indicative variant of the American present. Were someone to say “I think a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences will more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life”, my personal opinion is that this would be in a sense wrong, in another sense right, and in a final sense a matter of indifference. Let me explain. The sense in which it would be wrong is the sense which motivates the contemporary court’s fixation on an “originalist” interpretation of the Constitution. What this can really amount to is an interplay between the written law and the unwritten laws of US social practice as it has come down through history; one informs our understanding of the other.
We really would have no idea what the Founders meant if we did not consider their words in the context of what we know about American history as it is lived by the masses, and although intensive study of American history might be a profitable activity for anyone really some people might have a better idea of what those folks were about than others. Thinking hard about the contemporary relevance of the Revolution and following events is one way to try to get a handle on the ideas, but the folkways of the original colonists are important too and people with ties to them honestly know some things other people don’t. Let’s try this out. I happen to be one of these people, and I have a theory about why the Fifth Amendment exists (though it is honestly more “originary” than “genealogical”).
The Fifth Amendment is invoked in court cases to avoid testimony “on the grounds it would tend to incriminate” the witness. On the one hand, in the 20th century we all used to think that the mobsters that would take the Fifth looked guilty as hell; on the other hand, if you were of a liberal temperament the idea of a right to avoid unwarranted questioning seemed appealing. You know why I think it really exists, though? What they had in mind? Not as a “get out of jail free” card for those rightfully above the law, but as a retroactive device to avoid having a spurious confession assigned to you by the authorities: you can always say you took the Fifth, and because it’s there you don’t usually have to here. (And since I am — like most descendants of colonial people — nobody this won’t cost you a cent.)
On the other hand, there’s a deeper issue to consider. The whites of the United States and other American countries were not the original inhabitants of the Americas, and it may very well be that Ms. Sotomayor’s Latina heritage has something important to teach them; during recent years, I have generally felt that the increase in the US “Hispanic” (mestizo and Indian, as well as Spanish-speaking Afro-Caribbeans) population has been somewhat justified on a grand historical scale, and has important lessons to teach settler people, maybe even if they’re not being outsmarted by other immigrants. It’s an interesting large-scale social change she may reflect, but there is a large-scale social invariant I will consider to conclude.
In recent years, I have come to believe one thing and to suspect another. Firstly, that the supposed scientific evidence for the intellectual inferiority of nonwhites is absolute garbage; I think in recent years a lot of people may have learned from working with nonwhites on an evener playing field that they didn’t have too many points on them. Behind this, though, I think there may be a deeper truth: not only are people of different races cognitively equal, the disparity in cognitive ability between individuals generally may be much smaller than we think. Some of our educational system is premised on meritocratic grounds: I used to feel pretty good about my SAT scores, which were in ye olde first percentile. But you know, maybe that didn’t really mean that my oft-bumped and nicotine-fumigated noggin — which went on to do truly amazing things — was top-drawer, huh? Maybe there was a history behind that. Maybe there’s a history behind everything.
I want to return to an earlier topic: contemporary confluences between hip-hop and rock acts. I earlier approached it from the angle of black music’s attitude towards rock sounds, but a notable phenomenon of recent years is the rock cover of modern rap and R&B. I find these generally less interesting, but this may be a problem with my understanding of the totally massified rock culture of the present, where suburbanites who never saw The Great Acts of any particular flavor of countercultural distinction pick from an endless stream of what might seem like flotsam and jetsam (if you are not young and interested primarily in having fun).
In this spirit, I present the Sacramento band Far’s well-received cover of Ginuwine’s “Pony”.
And, for some audiovisual-oneiric perspective on the decades, the original video.
(For readers confused by the title of the post, it refers to an 18th-century book by the great British author James Boswell about a voyage in Scotland. Somehow I think he would be pleased.)
Now from the “ridiculous” to the sublime. In Portland, there are many streets named for early members of the Republican Party: Burnside, which bisects the city, is named for Civil War general Ambrose Burnside, and the Fremont Bridge is named for John C. Fremont, the first Republican candidate for president (his slogan was “Free Soil, Free Men, Fremont”). Considering that Oregon was a Republican stronghold until recent decades, this makes sense. But what kind of sense does the legacy of the Civil War, and the first Republican president Lincoln, make for today’s American left?
The young may be surprised to learn that the Republican Party initially had some radical leftists among its ranks; emigres from Europe sympathetic to the new socialist ideas circulating there joined it early on. Marx’s friend Joseph Weydemeyer was a member, and a letter from Marx to President Lincoln congratulating him on the conclusion of the war and the emancipation of the slaves was once known to every socialist. However, unless you are a professional American historian interested in Reconstruction, the interest in the interplay between the socialists and the Republicans usually ends there.
I am not a professional American historian, and even though I am as Northern as carefully cultivated irrationalism deriving from seasonal affective disorder I have no tie to the Republican party, even to its “heroic” days. I would like to suggest an alternate story about Lincoln, the left, and the general shape of the American Republic that is slightly less inspirational than the Gettysburg Address — but also keeps the intellectual and cultural history of the United States before the “Second American Revolution” legible (in something other than large-print letters speaking of Great Men).
As mentioned before, many European emigres (including people who had been involved in the failed revolutions of 1848) were involved in the initial formulation of the Republican party. Karl Heinzen, known to some as the “world’s first terrorist” for his advocacy of violent methods against monarchy, was one of the notable figures of this group: he initially formulated a “Louisville Platform” for the Democratic party, but soon switched ranks. Inspirational, in a way, but we are doubtlessly not the first to notice this influence; and in fact one might well argue that Republicanism as it evolved during the 19th century was a response to the European radicals, accepting the anti-racist part of their program but rejecting their economic ideas in favor of the free-market ideology that has long been associated with the party.
It is a free country, like they say, and even today lots of people like what Michael Steele and company have to say. What’s the problem? It certainly couldn’t be with “The Great Emancipator”, could it? Well, the conservative leftist will direct you to look at a piece of American currency to find the motto “In God We Trust”. This must have been written into the Constitution, right? No. The motto appeared on US currency in 1864, during the Civil War. Rising religious sentiment led to the introduction of the motto on coins “to protect from heathenism”.
The motto did not appear on paper currency until the ’50s, when Republicans worried about “imperialistic and materialistic Communism” insisted that it become the official national motto and be printed on all money; from that time until now, it has. What appeared on the money before that? The Great Seal of the United States, which is not without religious symbolism. The pyramid with the eye is the “Eye of Providence”, a symbol from antiquity appropriated to demonstrate the United States receiving the blessings of a creator (expressed in the motto “Annuit Coeptis”, “He approves of our undertakings”). But it is, shall we say, a little less blatant.
Untangling the early Republic’s relationship with religion is a difficult matter. Although the claims that most of the major “Founding Fathers” were deists might seem a bit trite, they are probably true enough; especially so for those associated with the Democratic-Republican party, which many in our age of royal glamour shoots forget was the party of support for the explicitly deistic French Revolution. Since the country has put it in D and since I am something of an “Old Democrat”, I would like to explore what was lost in the transition from Paine to Lincoln.
Now, I’m not going to get all Michael Hardt on you, arguing that Jefferson and Subcomandante Marcos are brothers in arms. That slavery is wrong is about as big a slam-dunk as you can come across in the moral world, and although they had not quite mechanized the machinery of slave death as efficiently as it would be towards the Civil War the Southern Founders probably should have read less Virgil and more freedmen’s society minutes. In fact, I think the only — only — thing that could compete is the still, small voice that tells me there is absolutely no “compelling evidence” for revealed religion and the established churches of Europe were a vastly inferior arrangement compared to what was probably a very “lively” early America.
So, in considering the history of the United States, we are really faced with two sorts of nihilism: the active nihilism of cut-up Democrats, who secretly don’t believe in much of anything and even if they do think it’s none of your business, and the positive nihilism of Republicanism from Lincoln on down, who have good news about Freedom and God and Capitalism, things nobody should really take seriously since the cat was let out of the scientific bag a hundred and fifty years ago. It may be hard to imagine that the work of a down-and-out scribbler like Marx, whose theories have been refuted time and again, could mean very much to our contemporary country — but this old colonial is going to tell you to really consider the alternatives.
POSTSCRIPT: After having written this, I got the impression somehow that though some of my relatives were involved in the Civil War on the Northern side, they may have somehow managed to vote for McClellan in 1864. Why could this be historically justifiable? Although we are told Lincoln suffered from “manic-depression” and that tall drink of water certainly managed to be pretty trippy at times, I think a legitimate justification might go something like this: “The Union won and slavery was abolished? Fine: although it was at great cost of life, life was cheap back in our time — and the Republicans never said anything different. However, consider this: why did we need to be growing cotton in the United States at all? The climate and soil of the South are not all that suitable for it, and the cotton ‘gin’ was so-called not because people didn’t have to call things like locomotives ‘engines’ but because, like the beverage, it was supposedly beneficial but brought a tremendous hurt on people. We could have easily imported cotton from Egypt or some other similar locale, were we willing to treat them decently; and a country which is free at home and slave abroad is not worthy of the intentions of our Founders.”
Post-commitment readers may have noticed the blog is drifting into a sociological metier; given that social analysis is everybody’s game, this has had a certain cast of rationality to it. In this post I drift into slightly choppier waters, cultural criticism and the body, and although there’s a tint of Gesellschafttheorie (ha ha) to it, it may indeed not be to everyone’s taste. This year women’s clothing has become more revealing, and walking around the area it is evident to my research team that young women (18-24 demographic, roughly) have rather a lot to show of themselves. Although I won’t attempt to displace Unfogged as the premier destination for pornogenetic speculation on the Internet, I have a few “Lamarckian” observations to make.
Over the last decade or so, cosmetic medicine — for those that have insurance — has improved. I say “cosmetic”, but I mean a general attention to morphology rather than simply making sure the organs are checking out OK. Lichtenberg once wrote of the smallpox vaccine eliminating a visage from the world; looking at unblemished young faces makes pimply old people feel trapped in a time vortex, and apparently everybody works out these days to look sharp at their office job. There have been changes in diet: without making cheap jokes about food additives, though who really knows, let me suggest that it was probably secretly really OK for the socially acceptable caloric intake for girls to be adjusted upward. Finally, though I am loath to think of the “dimes” of my youth as akin to foot-binding, it’s hardly a new idea that the “smoke-filled rooms” some of us grew up in might put a crimp on physical development. (It remains to be seen whether the political skills we acquired there will put us in good stead in dealing with the larger and more agile.)
Now, since I eke out a modest living as a hate-filled misogynist creep, you might think dealing with these young women would be tough sledding. It is true that those initially wearing the new styles were under the impression that only attractive and well-dressed men would be looking at their decolletage, but by this point it’s on a par or easier than dealing with the previous generation of young Portland transplants, who though they dressed more modestly were hipper and better-educated than you and really saw no social role for men they had no economic or sexual tie to.What does this say? Something about men and women together, and something about less super structures.
This experiment in dress (though it understandably goes back and forth, to the point that female refuseniks have adopted the dress styles of the early 60s as protest) is a learning experience for society, establishing a new balance between the sexes. Look, and what happens? Nothing. What would happen? Who knows? Most probably, people will learn a new set of social skills for defusing a too-keen interest in the appropriate sex: look at Europe, where people see “the goods” right off the bat on the beaches — or refrain from going for sebaceous, spiritual or ethico-political reasons (before celebrating the “Continental” we should also consider Brazil, which numbers among its major exports gender-bending pornography but has a strict no-nudity policy on its beaches).
Of course this regime of biopower is not without its risks; coming off real social gains by women and minorities during the Bush years (as opposed to the ’90s, where we talked a good game) a lot of young men harbor reactively misogynist and sexist attitudes that make them unable to connect with their female peers. “The school of flesh” might teach understanding, but it might also teach that no response is as good as a yes. And looking beyond the facade, what is the cognitive motive force of this sea-change? The failure of the economy, which is going to continue for as long as we live. Clinton and Bush hollowed out the American manufacturing base, and even if every Oregonian got a degree in Advanced Hydroponics there won’t be the wages or security of the past.
Though they may be perfectly intelligent, these lovely young things are in it together with the mass of humanity; “the bourgeois virtues” celebrated and cultivated by a certain strain of feminism are not for them. What role, then, for the dirty old man? I certainly think it would be progressive for my generation to do better than previous ones (except, perhaps, the Greatest Generation) and accept that age is not just a number, that ultimately the youth must be allowed to live their own lives and take a certain priority in some matters. However, I also think one of the hardest lessons for an unassuming man of any age to learn is not about the brush-off, easily recoded in sexist language, but that sometimes the profoundly attractive want one to play a role in their lives — relative to differences, other commitments, and a fundamental attitude of respect. But perhaps the matter requires further consideration.
I would argue that anthropology has experienced a crisis in recent decades as actual no-fooling members of various cultural groups explain their cultures without the intercession of the pale and well-meaning. Question: will the democratization of media technologies (e.g., that anyone with a reasonable amount of income in a developed country today owns the equipment necessary to make a short digital film) lead to a similar crisis in media studies? Bloggers don’t need to be told about blogs, after all.
The sociological legacy of Max Weber is almost as pernicious as it is enlightening. His devotees, Bourdieu among them, credit him with delivering the long-sought “Critique of Historical Reason”; but one could also argue that his theoretical framework as expressed in Economy and Society is in large part a farrago designed to channel the Weimar Republic in ‘liberal’ directions (the threadbare character of this German liberalism having been memorably satirized in Simplicissimus in the person of the “liberale Frau” exhorting people to turn out at the polls for no reason in heaven or on earth). One of his principles which has been widely taken up is “methodological individualism”, the ultimate explanation of social action in terms of individual agents. In a sense this is unimpeachable: people don’t come in bubble packs, after all. In the sense in which it is taken, though, it is a bad legacy of Neo-Kantianism which divorces sociological analysis from social reality.
Though Lukacs’ invocation of social totality as a historically effective category in the form of the proletariat should be taken more seriously by Neo-Weberians than it is – Lukacs was a member of the Weber circle before ‘converting’ to Bolshevism, after all – the criticism I have in mind is less global and more Meadian. We are recently familiar with explanations of the concepts involved in formulating individual choice and preference as consequences of “forms of life”, but if this is granted or no the near-immediate consequences of involvement in interaction systems still go curiously unconsidered by fans of methodological individualism. (The specific problems set by Wittgensteinian analysis are not directly related to the issues that compel “social pragmatism”, nor are they incompatible with a sensible and sane approach to the issues.)
When ego and alter begin interacting, a principle of semantic realism demands that the interaction be viewed as an evolving system of meaning: no matter how encapsulated the initial intentions of the agents may have been, the significance of the acts in their interaction depends on their dynamic, dyadic bond. The ability of agents to learn from and agree with each other, critical even for self-interested action, involves interpenetration of their perspectives — not simply the unloading of “personally” held viewpoints on each other. This is not just a sociological truism: the consequences of what the Parsonsonians called “double contingency” for the question of mutual interpretation are generally overlooked from a philosophical standpoint, the result being that a solipsism which is not methodological enough is automatically supposed to carry the day in lieu of thinking harder about what it means to interact.
An interesting special case of the problem is the “intention-based analysis” of literary conservatives. On their view, the utmost in critical seriousness involves probing what was going on in Shakespeare or Sterne’s “language of thought”, the private and apperceptively self-contained musings of the great literary mind. Without even a “Warrenite” analysis of this “original intention” stance (asserting that the great text is prone to semantic emendation by centuries of use, and a fine thing it is too) we can raise the question of whether this does not make a hash of literary history. Must we not think about what contribution the literary milieu, the world of the Spectator and Tatler – and perhaps that of the Rump Parliament as well – made to the language of the canonical authors? And if the noblest and most individual “sinngebende Akte“ do not lack an evolutionarily intersubjective tie, why are we to think that the world of mundane economic activity does?