Arts & Crafts Movement 29 March 2006Posted by Todd in Culture.
Yesterday I went to see a special exhibit at the newly completed and reopened De Young Museum of Fine art, in Golden Gate Park.
It was my first time to the museum since it was reopened last fall, and the architecture blew me away. The building has this incredible flow to it, with amazing amounts of sunlight coming through several terrariums on the inside. I wish I were better writing about art/architecture, because I just can't describe it. To be honest, I didn't pay much attention to most of the galleries because I was so awestruck by the space itself. I'll definitely be going back.
I have always been drawn to that period of architecture and design, but have never really studied it or looked into the movement or its production in depth. There's something earthy and folksy about their design, yet it's thoroughly modern. As many of you know, much of my historical training focuses on what is called "modernity", the period of time when Western societies made the dramatic shift from local, individual production to industrial mass production, and when society had to completely remake itself to support the new modes of production. (The A&C movement started in England (1860s) much earlier than in the U.S. (1890s), which makes sense, given that slavery and sectionalism put us about 50 years behind in industrializing.)
What struck me was the connection between the A&C movement and the incredible transformation capitalism had wrought. These men and women (there were many women designers in the movement, the first in world history to have a significant proportion) felt that mass production had stolen the "soul" of the production of goods, disconnected human beings from the objects in their lives by removing them from their production. They looked to the past (especially medieval, or at least what they thought of as medieval) to inform their rejection of mass produced objects and mass produced design, everything from books, to clothing, to furniture, to textiles. And they looked to nature for design inspiration, as a way to reconnect themselves to the land they lived on, feeling that the modes of capitalist production had wrenched the people away from who they were.
In some ways, this was a romantic fantasy. They created a past which hadn't really existed (which is always the case of cultural revivals); they created a cultural movement only accesible to the elite (because of mass production's economic effects, hand-crafted objects had become incredibly expensive), and they weren't dealing with the reality of the way things actually had become (with the exception of America, which was somewhat less ambivalent or troubled by modernity, and actually mass produced its object and even its homes (you could buy a bungalow in a kit for $400 and assemble it yourself)).
On the other hand, both their philosophy and their art and design continue to resonate, because we still live in the wake of modernity. Sure, we've become more accustomed to throw-away goods, and it is clear that people make meaning out of mass-produced objects as much as they did of artisanally produced objects 150 years ago. Yet even now, there's no denying that the quality of our relationships to objects and, for the American A&C Movement, especially to our very homes, that has been irrevocably altered. What I love is their normative aesthetic, that every aspect of a living space, a home, should be a work of art. [Left: A recreation of a Stickley interior from the 1910s.]
On Knowing (More on Religion vs. Science) 25 March 2006Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Cognitive Science, Philosophy of Science, Religion, Science.
Among my most ardent interests is the study of how human beings know. I had never thought too much about the question until I began studying John Dewey in 1998. For Dewey, human knowledge is necessarily embodied and experiential. He called it the organism-environment model, where the embodied individual knows only in transaction with its environment, and where for humans, environment is broadly construed to include the social (other humans) and cultural (symbolic, meaningful, and linguistic) elements of experience.
The traditional philosophical epistemology was based in what Dewey called the "Specator Model" of knowledge, where philosophers (think: Plato) knew stuff from the "outside" as a disembodied spectator. Dewey is making a key distinction between objective reality (which exists independent of human experience) and our knowledge of reality (which is necessarily experiential). In the spectator model, the reality is knowable unmediated by our bodies and experiences, thereby lending authority to the claims of philosophers who "know" it, and setting up a foil against which unreal, false, and situated knowledge could be compared. To the contrary, Dewey (and William James, and Charles Pierce, and George Herbert Mead) argued that whether you are a philosopher, a scientist, an engineer, a farmer, a hunter-gatherer, or a housewife, you knowledge comes from the same place: in a transaction with your environment—it is always mediated through experience.
James called this "pure experience," where the "vital flux of life" becomes the very raw stuff with which and about which we think; and the process of thinking about it produces any number of "objects" that we create to make sense of and to manipulate and change our environment.
Recently, my good friend Matt, in responding to my "Evolution of God" post of last weekend, raised important issues in the experience of knowing:
In other words, the things that we know (in this case mathematics) do not arise out of an embodied experience but exist independent of the human mind. 1+1=2 even if humans don't exist and even if it can't be proven without some fundamental intuitions about the nature of 1.
For me, there are actually two separate issues here. First, is their an objective reality outside of human experience? And second, how do human beings know that reality? On the first issue, this is a variation on the oldie but goodie, "If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear, does it make a noise?" Is there an objective reality of the tree falling and of the air molecules compressing and spreading outward from the event in such a way as to create noise, or does noise only exist because we hear it? It is vital to understand that there are objective realities out there which are not directly experienced by any human observer, which nonetheless exist and are real. Ironically, our own experience tells us this is so. We can come upon the fallen log 100 years later and observe the consequences of its fall. The tree fell independent of human mind.
The second issue, however, is for me the interesting question. It isn't whether or not the tree actually made noise, but how we would know one way or the other. Or to use Matt's example, the interesting question isn't whether or not 1+1 exists outside of human experience, but rather, how human beings come to know that 1+1=2 and that it exists independent of our experience.
It is the process of knowing that is of issue. What is key here in the science and religion "controversy" is that human knowledge comes from the same place, regardless or whether you're trying to figure out how to build a $1.3 billion bridge from Oakland to Yerba Buena Island, or trying to figure out how to teach your kids to look both ways before crossing the street, or trying to figure out how mollusks breed, or trying to understand the emptiness you feel when you're home alone. From philosophy to theology to biology to parenting to engineering to athletics to auto mechanics, human knowing is necessarily embodied and experiential.
I've been reading an article on the development of American Pragmatism and its transformation into Neo-Pragmatism in the past couple of decades, and I stumbled upon this explanation of Charles Pierce's definition of belief, and I think it gives a nice summary of my points above:
[Pierce] construes belief as involving habits of action, and doubt as the unsettled state resulting from the interruption of a belief-habit by recalcitrance on the part of experience. This real, living doubt, unlike Cartesian paper doubt, is both involuntary and disagreeable. The primitive basis of the most sophisticated human cognitive activity is a homeostatic process in which the organism strives to return to equilibrium, a process beginning with doubt and ending when a new habit, a revised belief, is reached.
Peirce compares four methods for the “fixation of belief.” The method of tenacity is simply to cling obstinately to whatever beliefs you have, avoiding any evidence that might unsettle them. The method of authority is to have a church or state impose conformity in belief. The a priori method — the method traditionally favored by metaphysicians — seeks to settle belief by inquiring what is “agreeable to reason.” But the most sophisticated inquirers, aspiring to indefeasibly settled belief, will always be motivated to further inquiry, never fully satisfied with what they presently incline to think. So the culmination of that primitive homeostatic process is the scientific method — the only method, Peirce argues, that would eventually result in beliefs which are indefeasibly stable, permanently safe from recalcitrance.
If you really want to learn the truth, you must acknowledge that you don’t satisfactorily know already; so the scientific inquirer is a “contrite fallibilist” (CP 1.14) ready to “drop the whole cartload of his beliefs, the moment experience is against them” (CP 1.55). In the Critical Common-sensism of Peirce’s mature philosophy — an attempted synthesis, as the phrase suggests, of Kant’s and Reid’s responses to Hume — the scientific inquirer is seen as submitting the instinctive beliefs of common sense to criticism, refinement, and revision.
What the pragmatists are arguing isn't that we give up theological or philosophical debates, but rather that we move past the old and untrue epistemologies and ontologies that make us think we are pronouncing ultimate truth. In our philosophical and theological and literary and artistic debates, and more importantly, in our values and moral debates, we must acknowledge where our knowledge comes from and approach our meaningful questions—who am I, why am I here, what is the meaning of life—beginning with a "scientific mindset" (as Dewey called it) or a "scientific attitude" (as Pierce called it). This doesn't mean that we cede all knowledge production to scientists, rather it means that we approach our quests for knowledge with the understanding of the limits of our knowledge and how we get it; that when we make existential or moral or theological claims, they be made by giving reasons and arguments and evidence; that they be explicitly anchored in our experience in this world rather than in our efforts to create certainty and stability by generating knowledge that doesn't correspond to our experiences.
The human capacity to imagine and to think, to begin with experience, create thought-objects, and then imagine all their possibilities—our ability to see thought-objects as infinite possible means—allows us to imagine ourselves into cultural structures that are maladaptive, when we rely on our tenacity, on authority, or an a priori knowledge without accounting for our experience. At best, such disconnected knowledge-systems (cultures) can be merely odd; at worst they can be immoral and even violent. In the pluralistic world we live in today, nothing could be more dangerous.
 This is a similar mistake to that made by much of postmodernism and poststructural theory. Where both pragmatic and postmodern theories of knowledge are anti-foundationalist (i.e., deconstructed)—that is, there is no correspondance between signified and signifier—the postmodernists end up making the same mistakes as Plato and most Western philosophers. They deal with knowledge as if it exists outside of lived experiences. Derrida and the social theorists who rely on him, such as Judith Butler, all explain the change of knowledge as originating in the non-correspondance of the signifier. And in sociology, the cultural sociologists make a like mistake, assuming that 'culture' exists independent of human bodies and experiences. The pragmatists, which seeing truth as a process and as necessarily experiential, also insist on the body. The linguistic turn of the postmodernists ultimately fails to describe the actual process of knowledge production in human individuals and groups, because it treats language (discourse) as prior to and structuring experience. This gives far too much power to language and to already-held knowledge at the moment of experience: The postmodern position ignores the embodied process of knowledge production in the first instance.
 Susan Haack, "Pragmatism, Old and New" in Contemporary Pragmatism Vol. 1, No. 1 (June 2004), 3-41.
Who(m) did you exploit today? 22 March 2006Posted by Todd in Capitalism & Economy, Cultural Critique, Inequality & Stratification.
Oh my god, I'm speechless. Even if you love capitalism, this is just freakin' funny.
Remember when we had the Right to Privacy? 17 March 2006Posted by Todd in Political Commentary.
[Thanks be to Randy for the link.]
A Return to 1950s Anti-Gay McCarthyism 16 March 2006Posted by Todd in Gay and Lesbian History, Gay Rights, History, Homosexuality, Inequality & Stratification, Politics.
Salon.com's War Room reports this morning that the Bush Administration has changed the wording in the guidelines for legitimate reasons to deny security clearances. Apparently, whereas the guidelines used to say that it was unlawful to deny a security clearance based on sexual orientation, the new guidelines have added the wording "solely based on" sexual orientation. While this may not seem like that big of a change, it opens a loop-hole that will allow the administration to deny or revoke security clearances to individuals who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered. To highlight why this is problematic, consider how one might react if the guidelines read that security clearance could not be denied "solely based on" the race of the individual.
During the 1950s, thousands of gay men and women in Washington, D.C., were fired from their jobs, because of their sexuality. Police raided bars, followed men in parks, and even surveilled private homes for evidence. More commonly, the FBI blackmailed individuals by interrogating them and threatening to out them publicly and fire them unless they gave lists of people who were homosexual. The witch hunt was not unlike the current atmosphere in the military. (For an excellent history of this period, I highly recommend David K. Johnson, Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians by the Federal Government.)
And equality for sexual minorities takes yet another step backward.
Moral Art vs. Moralizing Art: “Munich” and Violence 12 March 2006Posted by Todd in Cinema, Ethics, History, Judaism, War & Terrorism.
A movie that successfully asks difficult and complex moral questions is rare. It is far too easy for art to fall into moralization, rather than morality. Moralizing art tells us the right answer, so that believers feel comforted in their moral superiority and unbelievers will see the error of their ways and experience a conversion. But moralizing art is never good art. Rather than fostering an opening of the heart and mind, encouraging a careful and compassionate consideration of difficult issues, it feeds us the moral outcome as if we were children in Sunday School. In order to make its point, moralizing art must rely on piecing together images and ideas in nearly propagandistic ways; in movies, this means easily-recognizable and readily intelligible representations that require no subtlety of thought, setting up situations that emotionally resonnate but are not in fact realistic, and most aggregiously in film, giving us two-dimensional characters that are actually no more than stereotypes. This year's winner of the Best Picture Oscar, "Crash", is such a moralizing film, reducing characters to stock types, and putting them in situations where, of course, their Evil is made clear. Steve Lopez of the Los Angeles Times wrote today a great response to "Crash's" boosters: Race relations in today's Los Angeles simply don't work the way they are portrayed in the film. For me it is far more simple: "Crash" is moralizing art, and therefore bad art. It hits the viewer over the head with dumbed-down, simplistic moralisms, which aren't helpful at all in understanding the realities of race relations or drawing moral conclusions about race.
Moral art, unlike moralizing art, must be firmly anchored in realistic situations, must represent human beings in their complexity, their moral ambiguity, and show that in real life, morality is not clear and easy, but messy, dirty, and often bloody. Real human beings make morally wrong decisions constantly. Good people do bad things, and vice versa. Steven Spielberg's "Munich" is a much more successful moral film. What I found impressive from the first 20 minutes of the film is the equanimity with which the violence was portrayed. There was no difference in style, technique, or point of view between Palestinian-perpetrated and Israeli-perpetrated violence. The film focuses on the Mossad group that is hunting down and killing those whom the Israeli government had pointed out as the planners of the Munich murders. The characters (and the audience) must grapple with the possibility that what the Mossad assassins were doing was, in fact, immoral. At the most basic level it asks what kind of response to violence is justifiable.
Because of the focus on the Mossad group, the audience is never asked to consider the moral issues from the Palestinian side. And so the movie fails as an examination of the nearly 100-year-old Palestine-Israel conflict (war?). Although it might be too much to ask a film about a group of Israeli assassins to equally humanize and explore the Palestinian point-of-view, I found the moments when Palestinians were represented to fall back into the moral ease of stock characters giving stock speeches. For example, as the team cases out a French-Palestinian's apartment to plant a bomb, his wife delivers a shrill speech about Palestine's suffering; and again, a PLO agent working with the KGB delivers an even more shrill speech to the Bana character. To the extent that these two scenes work at all, it is because of the effect they have on the main characters, who are visibly troubled by confronting real human beings whom they must kill. But these scenes do little to humanize the Palestinians for the audience. So this is not a good film about Israel-Palestine, and should not be interpreted as such. But that should not be grounds to dismiss "Munich" as a failure.
Rather, where the movie succeeds as moral art is in the gradual transformation of the main characters, as they confront what they have done and the implications of violence for violence's sake. When you talk with a man in his home and listen to his wife talk about the suffering of her people, and listen to his daughter play the piano, what then does it mean to murder him? What if he wasn't even involved in the crime you are murdering him for? And most poignantly in the film, what does it do to you to kill him? In other words, does perpetrating violence, even when you believe yourself to be morally justified, come back to damage you, to destroy your own moral self.
Some have dismissed the film as only so much "liberal Jewish handwringing," but if I were Spielberg, I would take that as a compliment. What is most remarkable and humane and worthy about liberal Judaism (and for that matter, liberal Christianity and liberal Islam) is its willingness and indeed its insistence on moral handwringing. Religion that teaches moral absolutes, a black and white world, is a religion that will easily fall into violence, be it social, cultural, or the infliction of bodily harm. Easy morality allows violence against "enemies" and clearly defines who those enemies are: anyone who is not like us. Liberal strands of Judaism, over the past 200 years or so, have stepped out of tribal formulations of ethnic identity and asked what it means to be a Jew among human beings. From an early script of "Munich" available online (the dialogue in the finished movie—where punctuation doesn't count—was more precise and polished):
We're Jews, Avner, Jews don't do
wrong because our enemies do wrong.
We can't afford to be that.. .
I don't know that we ever were that
decent. Suffering thousands of
years of hatred doesn't make you
decent. But we're supposed to be
righteous. That's what I was
taught, that's Jewish, that
beautiful thing. That's what I
And I think I've lost that. Avner.
I've lost that too.
Oh that's, that's —
That's everything. I've lost
everything. My, my soul.
Ultimately, the film shows men who are transformed by killing. They become paranoid, haunted, detached. They are morally mangled as they systematically kill other human beings. I suspect that on both sides of any conflict the oucome is the same, unless you have forced yourself to believe in the facile morality that justifies without question or reflection the perpetration of violence. I suppose the ultimate question, and perhaps the most fearful one, is whether someone who believes the facile morality, someone who refuses the moral question and kills or maims believing they are doing the Will of God or that they are fulfilling their patriotic duty actually feel the impact of taking human life. Palestine-Israel or U.S.-Al Quaida: one soldier facing one sniper—one insurgent with one hostage—one suicide-bomber on one bus—one military pilot and one apartment building—one assassin and one target.