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Foreign Policy in the 21st Century, American Democracy, and de Toqueville 16 June 2007

Posted by Todd in Capitalism & Economy, Cultural Critique, Democracy, Democratic Theory, History, Philosophy & Social Theory, Religion, Reviews, War & Terrorism.
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[This is Part One of Three entries considering Claus Offe, Reflections on America: Tocqueville, Weber & Adorno in the United States, trans. by Patrick Camiller (Malden, Mass.: Polity, 2005 [2004]).]

In a world dominated by the United States, many people around the world, scholars and laymen alike, are trying to understand what America means, why it behaves as it does, and how its actions in the world can be controlled or mitigated in some way. To this end, Claus Offe goes back to three key European sociologists, Alexis de Tocqueville, Max Weber, and Theodor Adorno, who visited the United States and wrote analyses of American society, culture, and politics. Offe creates a kind of four-way rubric to judge where a European critique of the United States may come from. Basically, it can either see America as a kind of avant-garde of democracy and democratic social organizer, the experimenter that allows the European to look into its future; or it can see America as a “latecomer society,” as under- or undeveloped, immature. Either of these views can then be given a positive or negative moral value.(1)

Starting with de Tocqueville (hereafter dT), Offe seeks to explain American society in the 21st century and especially the actions of its federal state in the global arena since 9/11. Are there characteristics that dT observed in the 1830 that could explain the War in Iraq, the hostility toward state-sponsored social programs, and the U.S. domination of international economics? Offe argues that for the most part, dT saw America in the first vein, as an avant-garde of what was to come in other democratizing countries in Europe. DT spent much time in his two-volume Democracy in America comparing the U.S. to France and Europe in general; dT’s primary focus was perhaps more about understanding Europe than America.

Although he had a broad view of the multiple causes of American social outcomes, dT concluded that the key to the relative stability of American society lie in customs, or as Offe refers to them, referring to Belah’s now famous turn of phrase, “habits of the heart.” For dT, it was the particular aspects of American life and experience that created a taken-for-granted, or unconscious way of being in American interaction that produced the stability of the society. Mainly, Americans believe that they are all free and equal (dT does address the contradictions of Indians and Slaves as well); they are accustomed to a cacophony of divergent opinions and ideologies, but they settle upon a sort of general consensus that they treat as provisional; and they set up their country to allow a constant “learning by experience” in the government, where if something doesn’t work, they tweak it. All of these allow the American society to flow relatively smoothly and foster a deep kind of liberty, or self-government without hereditary hierarchies or powers. (11-18)

Offe focuses on a handful of key parts of dT’s argument to show the fundamental argument that he made in 1835: The greatest threat to American democracy is from possessive individualism, a particular kind of ‘equality’ that Americans embrace and live for: economic equality. Offe makes the careful distinction between actual economic equality and the American cultural notion of equality, which is that you may be rich today, but you could be poor tomorrow; and I may be poor today, but tomorrow I could be richer than you. Or to put it another way, Americans believe in the possibility of economic equality and accept the capriciousness of markets, making and breaking fortunes, as a matter of fact.

For dT, the lack of hereditary hierarchy leads to a generalized greed in the American consciousness, where the possibility of of gaining economic advantage over your neighbor becomes a kind of passion for equality, governing American life. Because this passion for equality occurs in an unpredictable market with uncontrolled upward and downward mobility, it is infused with fear, creating what Offe calls a “micro-tyranny,” or a self-imposed internalized tyranny, where personal decisions in the market slowly begin to overshadow all other kinds of freedom and all other social actions. (19-20)

A drawback of commercial activity based on possessive individualism is the monotony o flife, the melancholy and ‘strange unrest’ of business people, who cannot enjoy what they have earned, and the loss of republican virtues. (21)

In this context, political liberty becomes a burden, so that the drive for ‘economic equality’ ultimately leads to a gradual relinquishing of political and social power to the state. But because the state is set up to respond to the majority’s will (based on what is “most” rather than what is “best”), the state will ultimately focus its attention on the market as well, being primarily an instrument of the pecuniary interests of the misplaced equality. In this way, America was set up in 1835 for its people to literally chose despotism in order to live in their economic environment of possible economic equality. For dT, this creates an America of undifferentiated individuals who are, in fact, actually conformists in the market, and who have no care for their past or their future, nor for their social relationships in the present. All that matters is their economic lives. (22)

Most problematic for dT is that the rule of the majority ultimately means that culture and politics, the realm of values, ideas, and intellect, is subject to the a flattening, a dumbing down, a forced conformity to the will of the majority (whom he presciently calls the ‘middle class’). One hundred years before Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of the Enlightenment, dT was theorizing the “culture industry”; and several years before Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto, he predicted the concentration of capital and the dehumanization of the workers in America. (23)

His theory of the culture industry foresee’s Adorno’s in stunning accuracy: equality in possessive individualism leads to cultural conformity. Artists produce for the market or for bosses rather than for art’s sake. Utility outstrips aesthetics or meaning as the motivation for artistic production. The democratic aesthetic sense is reduced from the “great” to the merely “pleasant or pretty.” His theory of the concentration of capital simply sees workers native abilities and desires subordinated to the will of their employers; and the concentration of economic power transforming the state to the protection of the wealth of the owners. In this situation, the newly wealthy class have no social obligation to the rest of America, and act out of the socially acceptable possessive individualism. Ultimately, the majority are wage workers who are dependent upon employers for the livelihood and social status. (24-28)

DT argued that American culture had one major counter-valing force that prevented the demise of the democratic society: its “habits of the heart” as produced in religious communities and in voluntary associations. Simply put, dT believed that without centralized government, Americans were forced to interact with each other in voluntary associations; but that these associations were incredibly flexible, forming around the changing needs and opinions of their members. This, combined with the voluntary nature of American Christianity, acted as an ethical check to the worst possible effects of “equality”: possessive individualism and the passion for equality (29-34).

Offe’s critique of dT and his theorizing from the present (eminent critique) arises from a world quite different from that of 1835, wherein the United States dominates the political and economic scene for the entire globe. For Offe, dT could not have seen some key historical developments in American society, especially in the 20th century. First, Americans have gradually lost their attachment to voluntary association; Offe gestures to the large and growing body of communalist sociology, which documents and often bemoans the loss of community in American life. So the primary check on “equality” is eroding or, by some alarmist accounts, actually already gone. Second, Offe argues that associations in American society are, as often as not, instruments of social control and enforced conformity. In other words, associations can be used to counter-democratic ends as easily as they can uphold and undergird democratic societies. And third, Offe points to the actual structure of American democracy, where power is vertically diffused among state and local agents and agencies, such that the federal state lacks the power necessary to integrate the society as a whole. Offe says that the American state is blocked by communitarian localism: that is, local associations are communal, but rather than undergirding the democratic society, the serve to fragment it. (34-35)

Offe’s assessment of American cultural trends underlying the state are breathtaking in their clarity: American cultural history began with a distrust of the state, and from its founding in the Constitution, American institutions have had as their modus operandi protection of the individual from the state (rather than from other individuals). For Offe, this led to a misplacement of community in religion, where religion became historically the locus of lasting American communities. The mistrust of the state combined with the necessity of having a state led to what Offe calls “nation-building without state-building.” If nothing else, Americans are as a lot anti-state. Offe points to the frontier history and colonization as the sources of these mindsets, where people had to live together and survive without the presence of a state. (37-8)

The federal institutions (state-building) — as Madison, et al., created them — strip power from the federal government necessary for social integration (nation-building). The social and cultural powers left up primarily to local authorities or more commonly left out of the law at all, gives huge power to the courts who must arbitrate social interaction with only a minimum of actual law to guide them (hence the huge body of case law in American jurisprudence). So both the legislative and executive are left only with regulating the economy and dealing with foreign affairs and conflicts. Offe argues that the location of American community in religion and voluntary associations created a society where the government must effect social integration but lacks the necessary powers to do so. (38-40)

And so, Offe argues, the executive and legislative seek enemies outside the boundaries of the United States, extending the frontier of yesteryear out into the global scene. To say it another way, because the American state is so feeble domestically, it must exert itself outward on the non-American world.

But Offe goes a step further to argue that because American religion, the locus not only of community but of social morality, is outside the purview of the state, it exists pre-reflexively. That is, morality of the American society is literally a habit of mind, a self-evident truth; so that in the foreign policy sphere, unexamined moralities are enacted upon the world with America as missionary, savior, democratic hero. There are no social formations set up for society-wide discussions of morality, for critical examination of social morality and collective argument. All such arguments happen in local communities (usually but not exclusively religious) and are then enacted unexmained in the public sphere.

As current developments since 11 September 2001 have illustrated, in all these projects this dominant power proceeds in its (now for the first time structurally unendable) war against ‘evil’ and for ‘good,’ not by rule-bound but by decision-bound principles, not in the framework of recognized international law and human rights norms, but unilaterally, even if supported at the time by an alleged ‘coalition of the wililng’ of individual staes. This policy of voluntaristic coalition-building may be understood as precisely a resurrection of the spirit of voluntary sects and local associations on the plane of international politics. (41)

Connecting ‘habits of the heart’ or customs of a society to the behaviors of its federal state and its government is a tricky endeavor. Inevitably the generalizations can serve to overwhelm the specificity and, especially in America, the diversity and conflict among competing ideas. On one hand, I found myself nodding in amazement at Offe’s analysis: yes, dT saw the possible weakness or tendency toward despotism (loss of liberty) in American ‘equality’ but his antidote was too weak. But something about Offe’s focus on religious community is bothersome to me. Indeed, in what I wrote above, I’ve already gone beyond Offe’s actual argument and expanded it in ways that move past religious communities in terms of the location of morality-formation. What I suppose bothers me is the tenuous connection between the religious communities and voluntary associations and the enactment of that morality. It seems particularly clear in George W. Bush that he is uncritically enacting quasi-religious moralities in his conceptions of America’s role in the world. And while I agree with Offe that American electorate likes (for the moment) its religiosity in the Executive, I also think this represents a particular historical moment in American history, post 1973.

Obviously, the American state lacks the power to enact major social programs that would or could serve to integrate the society; and its legislature and executive are limited in ways that are regressive from a European perspective. But equally obviously, at the empirical level, the kinds of moralities that get enacted in the government are hotly contested. Even GWB’s war on terror, though initially immensely popular, was contested from the beginning. While the system may allow someone like GWB to emerge, I’m not sure that it necessarily would have led to those particular values.

On the other hand, I can see the frontier mentality and Manifest Destiny enacted throughout American foreign policy since the 1850s, leading to America’s particular kind of imperialism, a kind of indirect empire. And I definitely see the values Offe critiques (i.e., America as missionary of democracy, as the scion of ‘the good’) as having been continually enacted for 150 years now–but never unilaterally and always with a great deal of controversy and cultural battles, beginning with the Mexican War and coming all the way forward to the War in Iraq.

Ultimately Offe’s theory fails to explain why, despite the massive resistance from the people (often the majority of people, as in the Spanish-American War, World War I, and Vietnam), those particular values get enacted by the government. In other words, it doesn’t explain why the American executive behaves as Offe accurately describes, despite the fact the morals arising out of the people don’t necessarily match or support its action. Yes, we have the habit of the heart of our voluntary association, yes that leaves a void where social integration is concerned; but why did one particular set of values become the dominant one expressed in the foreign policy of the American state, even in the face of opposition from its people?


Brainwashing: Children and Religion 6 May 2007

Posted by Todd in Christianity, Democratic Theory, Documentary Film, Teaching.
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After watching the documentary Jesus Camp this afternoon, I was thinking about my strong emotional reaction to what I saw. Given what I’d read about the film and friends’ reactions, I had expected to be offended and disgusted. And indeed, I was actually embarassed by the weirdness of some of these people (the older woman with the cutout of Pres. Bush speaking in tongues was beyond freakish). But mostly I felt violated.

There’s a scene early in the movie with a young girl, around 7 or 8 years old, who is bowling with friends and family. As she tries to hit the pins, she prays to god to make it a good strike, and she “commands” the ball to do her will. Seeing this twisted my stomach in nots. I have vivid memories of believing that I had that kind of power, because I had faith.

The teachers used likely techniques to indoctrinate the children and to get them to believe: emotional activities designed to excite feelings, music and dancing, object lessons, rhythmic chanting, telling the kids that they are chosen and important, encouraging the children to profess their faith (not to mention to speak in tongues and heal), showing the kids models (inaccurate ones) of fetuses. But mostly it was the content of the teachings that disturbed me–a blatant manipulation of the emotions of a child.

Richard Dawkins has taken a lot of heat over the past year about the claim in his book The God Delusion that indoctrinating children into religion is a form of child abuse. It is hard to watch these kids talk about Americans as sinners who need chastening, or about how they are sinful for wanting to watch Harry Potter, just because it’s so silly. Or even more, the little bowling girl goes up to evangelize a woman at the bowling lanes, it’s painful to see the brainwashing in practice. But taken as a whole, the kids taling about why evolution is evil, and global warming isn’t true, and how they have to redeem america from Satan…it’s hard not to see this is child abuse.

I suppose it is my own discomfort with my own childhood, and the degree to which I had believed what I was taught. I realize mormonism is a different kind of religion from Evangelicalism, but many of the processes were the same. I have to wonder if my long, difficult journey to reshape my own world view and perspective would have taken so long had I not been indoctrinated in the way I was.

For me, the film raises again the question that may very well be at the center of democratic freedom: what rights do children have? Do they have the right to be raised free from their parents’ superstition? Is the kind of emotional, pyschological, and intellectual damage inflicted on children not a form of abuse? I believe that these parents are sincere in their beliefs and they truly want what is best for their kids. But is sincerity enough to justify what religion does to children?

‘Hometown Baghdad’ Web Documentaries 29 March 2007

Posted by Todd in Documentary Film, War & Terrorism.
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I just spent a half hour watching the mini-documentaries about three men — Adel, Aussama, and Saif — living in Baghdad. The filmmakers followed them around over the past year in an effort to break through the banality and machine-like rhythm of news reporting on the Iraq War. For me, watching the lives of people in a war zone, trying to be “normal” and to still believe in their lives’ dreams snapped me out of a low-level anger and irritation over the war. I realized how, even though my objections to the war include its human cost, my primary objections have been political and intellectual. Here you cannot help but confront the day-to-day impact our ill-conceived invasion has on people whom, under normal circumstances, we would sit around in a coffee house and debate literature, talk about our lives, and enjoy the company of a friend.

The mini-documentaries are up on Hometown Bagdad and also on Salon.com. They have started distributing them through YouTube, through it’s New York based producers Chat the Planet, for maximum publicity. And they are available in vid-cast form through iTunes.

Watch them and spread the word. Here’s the most recent episode, “Symphony of Bullets.”

From Hometown Baghdad‘s description:

Hometown Baghdad
A documentary web series following the lives of a few Iraqi 20-somethings trying to survive in Baghdad.

The everyday life of the Iraqi citizen has been the great untold story of the Iraq war.

The Distribution
The brave Iraqi subjects and crew risked their lives every time they turned on a camera to make this series. They want to show the world what life is like when your hometown is a war-zone. We believe that people who see their stories will want to share them with others. That’s why we’re distributing the series online. So please – watch the videos, rewatch them, tell friends about them, comment on them, and link to them.

The Language
The intention of the Iraqi filmmakers and subjects was to show the world what Baghdad is truly like. That’s why they usually speak English and not Arabic.

The Producers
It is a co-production between NY-based Chat the Planet and a group of Iraqi filmmakers in Baghdad. The subjects also turned the cameras on themselves when it became too dangerous for our crew to travel through Baghdad.

And from Salon.com’s description:

What we immediately found absorbing in “Hometown Baghdad” is not the fear, confusion or carnage we’ve grown to expect from documentary reports out of Iraq. It’s the three men central to this series — Adel, Ausama and Saif — whose lives we see unfold in short, telling vignettes. We see them eat dinner and go to school, watch them go swimming and practice in their rock band. But in a war-torn, religiously divided city, even these simple actions are fraught.

On the fourth anniversary of our invasion of Iraq, when many of us have become hopelessly inured to reports of yet another bombing, the simple struggles of regular people take on a greater, more chilling power; we watch a way of life deteriorate before our eyes, and come to recognize the horrors of war in a way that the bold headlines or CNN news alerts no longer convey. We think you’ll find them compelling and thought-provoking, and hope you’ll write in to the Letters section to tell us what you think. The first three episodes appear in the left-hand column (and here). Additional installments will appear every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for the next few months.

The shooting of “Hometown Baghdad” was led by directors and producers Ziad Turkey and Fady Hadid over the course of the past year; the series was co-produced by New York-based Chat the Planet, which will distribute these videos, after a short period of exclusivity on Salon, to a variety of online outlets (including YouTube.com, Joost and the series’ own Web site) for maximum exposure.

Hitchens on Free Speech 15 March 2007

Posted by Todd in Christianity, Commentary, Democratic Theory, History, Islam, Judaism, Law/Courts, Religion.
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I have a love-hate relationship with Christopher Hitchens, whose columns in the Nation I used to love to read, but who continues to baffle me with an almost irrational support of the war in Iraq. But lately he has emerged as a modern-day Voltaire (at the risk of overstating), poking at sacred cows (i.e., religion) and insisting on the necessity and ultimate Good of radical free speech. Like Voltaire, he seeks purposefully to offend his reader-listener precisely because he can and believes he should be able to do so.

In Canada, hate-speech is against the law and several European countries are leaning toward outlawing “offensive” speech. This is a dangerous gigantic leap backward to Voltaire’s day, when people who said things offensive to the powers-that-were (i.e., the king and the church) were imprisoned, tortured, fined, or killed for speaking their minds. Here, Hitchens speaks at Hart House at the University of Toronto during a debate about the possible decriminalization of hate speech in the frosty country to our north.* Hitchens offends everyone from Canadians, to gays, to muslims and christians, to women, Austrians and people from Yorkshire. But he does so to make his point: Free speech must remain inviolate. Watch it knowing you’ll be offended at least once, and then listen for its core argument.

Thanks be to One Good Move for posting the speech. Here are a couple of excerpts on Youtube.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

*Canadian multiculturalism is in some ways extreme in its niceness and its fear of offence, but rises to the level of anti-democratic principle as the government reifies racial, ethnic, linguistic and religious identities by funding them merely to exist. I love Canada, and was probably a black jewish lesbian from the Northwestern Territories in my last life; but I fear their efforts to create a pluralist utopia may actually end up destroying some basic freedoms.

Literary Criticism Is Anti-Intellectual 8 March 2007

Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, Literature, Philosophy & Social Theory, Science, Social Sciences.
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I just read this irritating article by Tom Lutz on Salon.com excoriating people who don’t like literary theory. Here’s my response.

Earlier letter-writers [responding on Salon.com] have already made two solid arguments against the current state of English departments in academia: first, the language employed by literary theory is messy and imprecise; and second, much of what passes for literary studies today is thinly veiled political advocacies or social studies through the lens of literature. I would argue that these critiques don’t go far enough.

1) Literary criticism borrows from social theory (e.g., Marxism) without any anchoring whatsoever in the empirical data behind those theories or the long history of empirical engagement them, which has modified and challenged and in some cases rejected them altogether over time. Lit-crit picks up theories that appeal to them with no training in how to ask the related empirical questions other than “using” theory to “read” a text. And so social theories aren’t treated scientifically — as “best possible answers given current data, but changing as we gain more data” — but instead are treated as “lenses” through which to “see”. [These people still take Freud seriously, for God’s sake.]

2) Ironically, lit-crit simultaneously deconstructs the idea of “truth” (usually from a Derridean perspective) even as they treat their disconnected theories as such and while willfully ignoring a raft of scientific data about how our brains actually produce knowledge. They already know that science is a suspect (or Western, or colonial, or sexist, or racist, or whatever) “universalising discourse” and therefore NOT true [e.g., see the writer’s blithe and ignorant dismissal of sociobiology.].

3) Lit-critics are not trained in science or in social science, yet the pretend to be able to speak authoritatively about society and culture and human nature. Not only do they not do actual research, they don’t know how to conduct that research; and worse, they usually spend a lot of time arguing that such research isn’t possible. In other words, lit-crit makes claims about society and culture for which they have ZERO evidence or justification for making.

So the problem isn’t with the anti-intellectualism of the ignorant masses who “just do not get” lit-crit. The problem is that lit-crit is itself anti-intellectual, having set itself up as the purveyor of true-sight while dismissing whole fields of empirical research psychology, social interaction, or even human biology. [They reject this criticism, however, because they know that privileging “empirical” research is situated, dominating discourse and relies on a subject they’ve already “proved” to not exist.]

I’m not against complex social analyses of literature; and I would also argue vehemently for the value of the humanities, the study of human meanings and human aesthetics. But as a social scientist, I’d appreciate some good old-fashioned humility from the lit-crit crowd, and admission that they study LITERATURE, which is an ART FORM, and that they are limited in what they can with any degree of scholarly seriousness make reliable claims about.

John F. Kennedy on Secrecy and Security 8 September 2006

Posted by Todd in Democratic Theory, History, Journalism, Politics, War & Terrorism.
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Although he had his faults, like all men and women, he was a believer in democracy and freedom. His words stand in stark and alarming contrast to the cynics who run our country today. Thanks to whoever posted this speech to YouTube and to Mike the Mad Biologist for spreading the word.

Political Fervor 4 September 2006

Posted by Todd in Christianity, Cognitive Science, Democratic Theory, History, Politics.
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[On a post-mormon forum I participate on, there’s been some discussion about why Mormonism breeds such intense political feelings in addition to the religious identity one would expect, so much so that it is often impossible to have a rational discussion about politics with a mormon (or any religious person, for that matter. Here are some of my thoughts:]

Cognitive Scientists have done a series of studies on people’s reactions to political discussions (not ideas) and here’s the thing: people have to make a concerted effort to stay in a ‘rational’ mode. If they don’t, emotions take over, so that the emotional brain controls the discourse. I’ve found this to be true here in the Bay Area as well, even among secular, left-wing people. I thought when I left Kansas for San Francisco, I’d be politically free; but I find that the political culture here is just as reactionary and normative as it was in Kansas, only from the other side of the political spectrum. I’ve been scolded in a Berkeley parking lot by complete strangers for throwing away a plastic bottle (instead of recycling it) and have been called a Republican and a fascist (in tones approaching religious fervor) because I questioned the city’s policies on homelessness and, more recently, school busing. In short, people seem to hold political positions uncritically, in general, and emotionally; and they are usually identities as much as or more than they are political positions.

In social psychology (i.e., microsociology), it’s been pretty well demonstrated that, at least in democracies, political affiliation is rarely a mere alignment of parties and even rarer of intellectually substantiated argument; rather, it is almost always an alignment of values and group boundary drawing of peoplep who share those values. Values can (and should!) be discussed and arrived at rationally whenever possible (we should have reasons for taking the value positions we do), but the reality is that most often we *feel* our value positions, rather than think about them. And thus, our political affiliations, which are value affiliations, are emotional attachments, not rational choices.

American politics’ two-party steaming pile of fresh bullshit has the frustrating cultural effect of making Americans think that all issues only have two sides and two possible solutions, and one is evil and one is good. I cannot see how American politics could possible ever get better until we have a multi party, proportional representational system, and publicly funded proportional campaign financing. But I digress. My point here is that the emotional nature of political affiliation is then exacerbated by the fact that we have a political culture based in a duality that forecloses our ability to see the complexity of issues and possible solutions to problems.

All this historically is actually connected to the way Americans do/have done religion. Where disestablishment had the unintended effect of imbricating religious participation and political participation completely by the 1830s. My small point is simply that it is deeply American to have inextricable relationships between faith and politics. Even during the long 100 year long period where ostensibly evangelicals believed that religion was incompatible with secular politics, they framed religious issues as political issues (think: Scopes trial; temperance movement; etc.). And so people’s religious identities and political affiliations are woven together in vexing and vexed ways.

How Art Made the World (Review)–A Naturalistic Explanation 12 July 2006

Posted by Todd in Cognitive Science, Culture, Evolution, Painting & Sculpture, Religion, Reviews.
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PBS’s new series How Art Made the World has really captivated me over the past couple weeks. The first two episodes combine art history with cognitive science and neurobiology, archaelogy, human evolution, and anthropology—interdisciplinary inquiry at its best. Dr. Michael Spivey (Art Historian, Cambridge University) narrates, easily moving back and forth between between various disciplines to explain the human need for and ability to create representation in two-dimensional images and three-dimensional sculpture. The questions asked move beyond art criticism to explore why humans create certain kinds of images and why certain kinds of representations seem to produce heightened pleasure in our consumption of art. My inner Deweyan loves the way Spivey’s explanations seamlessly blend scientific knowledge with interpretive discussions of art’s meaning. My only quibble, especially in the 2nd episode, was that the narrative is a kind of triumphal progression: each episode begins with a mystery and ends with The Answer. Although it makes for great educational television, the social scientist in me would blanched at Dr. Spivey’s certainty about his answers; I would have prefered a more open ended, provisional answer (especially where archaelogical speculation is concerned!).

mujeres-mitologias-venus-of-willendorf-palaeolithic-gravetian-austria-25000-20000-bce-facsimile_book-379.jpgEpisode One, “More Human than Human” begins with the Venus of Willendorf and asks why human artists seem to have an inexplicable tendency, cross culturally, to create images of the human body that are exagerated in proportions. Spivey gives examples from ancient Egypt and Greece and from around the world to illustrate. Interestingly, Greek sculpture went through a brief period where it created realistic images of young men (kore), standing statically upright, and accurately proportionate. But it wasn’t long before the sculptors began to produce what we now think of as “classical” greek bodies were born. What is so fascinating about the statues is that they aren’t proportioned naturally; rather, they are exaggerated proportionally (i.e., real human beings don’t look like that!). Anyway, in comes neurologist V.S. Ramachadran to explain how our brains respond to certain stimuli with pleasure. Spivey illustrates with a species of seagull from the west coast of Spain, whose chicks respond to a red stripe on their mother’s bill during feeding. The chicks respond more vigorously if presented with a dummy-head with three red stripes! In other words, it seems that our brains respond to certain aspects of our bodies, and they REALLY respond to those same aspects when exaggerated. And so around the world, human beings produce art that is “more human than human.” Cool.

cave-bison-2.jpgEpisode Two: “The Day Pictures Were Born”: There are two big questions in the second episode. One is why homo sapiens, who have been around for over 150,000 years, only began creating representational art about 35,000 years ago. The debates among biologists, evolutionary linguists, paleo-anthropologists, etc., wage on about what has been called “The Great Leap Forward,” or in Dr. Spivey’s words, “The Creative Explosion”, which includes the development of language (around 50,000 years ago). That question is left a mystery, and the second big question is, what do these 35,000 year old paintings mean and why did humans start making them? The episode leads us through the discovery of Altamira and Lascaux and then through several theories regarding the origins of cave painting. The most famous of these proposed that they were hunting rituals preceding the hunt; problematically, people around the world seemed to eat different animals than they painted.

Then there’s the problem that cave art is not only of animals, but of humans, human body parts, humans morphed with animals, geometric patterns, spots, webs, and even abstract images (who knew?). Using anthropology from South Africa and the San people, Spivey and a couple experts theorize, rather plausibly given their evidence, that these early cave paintings were part of solitary shamanistic rituals, and very likely were produced after trance states. A neurologist at London’s Institute of Psychiatry demonstrates a really cool machine that produces trance-like responses in the brain through the visual cortex, and show that our brains are hardwired to receive certain kinds of geometric patterns and that trance states actually turn those into hyper drive. Finally, as trance states get deeper and deeper, the entranced begins to see images of things that are emotionally resonant with the individual. Spivey hypothesizes that for this reason, different cultures around the world had trance-visions of different objects and animals. As I mentioned, it is here that I had reservations with the surety with which Spivey declared that the mystery is solved.

Regardless, in both the representation of human bodies and in the cave paintings, I find it fascinating that our brains respond with such intense pleasure to representations of the world wrought by our own hands. And I find it interesting as well that some representations are pleasurable and others aren’t — and that which images produce pleasure is a complex interaction of the biological wiring of our brains and the cultural contexts within which we have developed our aesthetic values and sensibilities.

I have Episode Three, “The Art of Persuasion”, about political art and propaganda recorded on TiVo, but haven’t watched it yet. I’ll return and report after I watch it.

The Mostly Unfabulous Life of Ethan Green (Review), Gay Cinema (Choke), and What’s Film Criticism For (Anyway)? 8 July 2006

Posted by Todd in Cinema, Culture, Gay and Lesbian Culture, Pop Culture, Reviews.
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Ugh. After reading a couple positive reviews in the gay press, followed by the interesting article in the San Francisco Chronicle, I was all ready for a light, funny, gay romantic comedy. Instead I got “The Mostly Unfabulous Life of Ethan Green.” (By the way, this is the second horrible film I’ve seen from Here! productions in the past month; the first was the painful lesbian dramedy April’s Shower, which was so bad I couldn’t bear to review it.)

I know, I know. It’s based on a comic strip (a rather funny one, at that) by Eric Orner, which incidentally is a key piece of gay history since he first began drawing it in 1989. The San Francisco Cartoon Art Museum included Orner’s strip in its 2006 special show on gay and lesbian cartoons. I’m not saying a comic strip can’t be translated into film, or that this couldn’t have been done well; but it did feel like the gags just didn’t translate somehow. When you see Ethan Green in a comic strip, his flaws and stupidity seem funny. But when you watch a warm-blooded human being making the same bad choices it is god-damned painful.

02_film_ethan_26_lg.jpgBasically, Ethan is highly judgmental of every man he dates and ends up breaking up with every one because they aren’t good enough–a relatively common and relatively serious problem among humans in general in our consumer-cum-dating culture. This is mixed with a series of stereotypical gay inside jokes. Again, these play funny in print, but come off as ham-handed on screen. From recently out athletes, to log cabin republicans, to middle-aged gay aunties, to teenaged oversexed newbies, this is a veritable dramatis personae of gay male stereotypes. Comedies made from within minority communities can make great use of such images, both as gentle prodding to get us to see what’s there inside of our own lives and communities and as ways to simply see ourselves represented and laugh. So although I laugh when I read Ethan Green in comic strip form, I cringed and felt self-hating when watching the film.

Top this all off with bad pacing (sometimes it drags in the middle of hijinx…hello, editing? direction?) and bad acting (watching a straight guy act gay, like, look at me ma, I’m acting!), and you have an evening of disappointment. No matter how cute the lead is or how hot the sex scenes.

We use the arts (from high-brow to low), as people, to express our ideas of ourselves and to explore our experiences in the lives that we lead. Cinema (and television) probably have more power to accomplish this end than other forms of art, because we can see real human beings moving, acting and reacting within situations we may find ourselves in; cinema allows identification in a way that is fundamentally different from other art forms. And for that reason, its power to represent and produce meaning, I believe, outstrips other forms. For subordinated communities, where the meaning of their lives is always in opposition to (or in competition with) the meanings ascribed to them by the dominant culture, the representations in film and television can be devastating. Whole shelves in libraries are devoted to the research done on representations of subordinate peoples and the effects these representations have on bolstering systems of oppression and producing dominated personalities in the minorities. For gay men and women, the production of representations by, for, and of ourselves has been key to our ability to emerge from the homophobic and heterosexist norms of American society and create full lives for ourselves despite the dominant culture.

This is difficult to talk about, because I hate the whole dynamic where minority artists have to “represent” their people (as if that were possible); yet, the continued production of meaningful art that you can at least sit through without throwing empty popcorn buckets at the screen is of utmost importance at this turning point in gay history. We are on the verge of having de facto ‘acceptance’ into America. But that will not eliminate our need as a group to continue to have discussions about what our lives and loves and communities should mean. And we will need to do better than this film.

Having said that, I’m not a film snob by any stretch (really, I’m not!). In fact, I’m a bit of a social outcast in San Francisco, where cultural posing is de rigeur, from local hip-hop among the kids, to only the right electronia among the clubbers, to only the right restaurant for the bourgeois; and everyone in the city seems to be a movie snob. Now I like movies ranging from blockbuster action, to teen dramas, to historical epics, to impressionist films from Siberia. I like film for the masses and cinema for the elite. In short, I like film. I’ve never studied film history or film making, so mostly my reviews are just my viceral response to them (although sometimes my cultural-sociologist brain will kick in and I’ll have a fit analyzing the cultural production and circulation of meanings in particular contexts. See above.).

After talking extensively with my good friend Matt about movies, I finally admitted to him that I actually like Roger Ebert. Most people know him only from the television review program, which is of a necessity abbreviated and simplistic (thumbs up or down? please). But when you read his published film criticism, you get to understand not only how much he loves cinema, but how much he gets it. Often, the role of critics is poo-poo’ed in our anti-intellectual American culture, our own backwards form of cultural populism. But critics can serve a vital role of interpreting works of art and engaging us in the meaningful conversations that they evoke. Camille Paglia’s recent collection of poetry explication/criticism, Break, Blow, Burn, demonstrates the role of critic beautifully, showing us that criticism at its best makes us stop and reconsider, moves forward our understanding, contextualizes pieces, and finally may actually inspire us. I have discovered the Ebert is one of those cultural critics.

In the introduction to his 2002 collection of essays about 100 of his favorite movies, The Greatest Movies, Ebert says this of film:

Of all the arts, movies are the most powerful aid to empathy, and good ones make us into better people. Noot many of them are very good, however. Yes, there are the passable Friday night specials, measured by critics including myself in terms of their value in entertaining us for two hours. We buy our tickets and hope for a diversion, and usually we get it, but we so rarely get anything more.

I suppose that I just want something more from Gay Cinema.

Random Food for Thought at 1 a.m. 7 July 2006

Posted by Todd in Political Commentary, Pop Culture, Religion, Secular Humanism.
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sam_harris.jpgFrom today’s Salon.com interview with Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith:

It may sound paradoxical but it’s not. I’m advocating a kind of conversational intolerance. It’s really the same intolerance we express everywhere in our society when someone claims that Elvis is still alive, or that aliens are abducting ranchers and molesting them. These are beliefs that many people have. But these beliefs systematically exclude them from holding positions of responsibility. The person who’s sure that Elvis is still alive and expresses this belief candidly does not wind up in the Oval Office or in our nation’s boardrooms. And that’s a very good thing. But when the conversation changes to Jesus being born of a virgin or Mohammed flying to heaven on a winged horse, then these beliefs not only do not exclude you from holding power in society; you could not possibly hold power, in a political sense, without endorsing this kind of thinking.

It should be terrifying to us because many of these beliefs are not just quaint and curious, like beliefs in Elvis. These are beliefs about the end of history, about the utility of trying to create a sustainable civilization for ourselves — specifically, beliefs in eschatology. These are maladaptive. For instance, if a mushroom cloud replaced the city of New York tomorrow morning, something like half the American people would see a silver lining in that cloud because it would presage to them that the end of days are upon us.

headshotbwpoint-80x120.jpgAnd from Mark Morford, columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle:

It is like some sort of virus. It is like some sort of weird and painful rash on your face that makes you embarrassed to walk out the door and so you sit there day after day, waiting for it to go away, slathering on ointment and Bactine and scotch. And yet still it lingers.

Some days the pain is so searing and hot you want to cut off your own head with a nail file. Other days it is numb and pain-free and seemingly OK, to the point where you think it might finally be all gone and you allow yourself a hint of a whisper of a positive feeling, right up until you look in the mirror, and scream.

George W. Bush is just like that.

Can you tell I’m having trouble sleeping? Thank god for reading and blogging.