Wednesday, February 09, 2011

The past is never dead; it's not even past

I recently had occasion to dine at an establishment with which most people are at least familiar, as it is a fairly large chain. I speak of Applebee's. The food was fine; I am not a connoisseur of steak, but the Asiago Peppercorn [sirloin] steak was very tasty, and small enough to be a) eaten whole at one sitting, and b) probably accurately placed on the 550 Calories menu (served with veggies).

However, it is not the food that made the experience so memorable. It was earlier in the evening (around 6 PM) than most suburbanites dine, so the place was relatively empty, but even so (or perhaps because of this) the music was fairly loud. I went to high school in the 1970s, and as far as this restaurant was concerned, it seems that we have never left. Here, to the best of my memory, is the soundtrack to the meal for your imaginative perusal.

We arrived during Jimmy Page's extended guitar break in Led Zeppelin's "Heartbreaker", which continued, as is the custom, into "Living Loving Maid (She's Just a Woman)", the next track on Led Zeppelin II. I am leaving a track or two out, including a blues song which might have been Muddy Waters and an album rock track (clearly from that same era) which I did not recognize, but the time matches up about right so this must be about it. Continuing after Zeppelin:

J. Geils Band - Love Stinks
Fleetwood Mac - Rhiannon
Heart - Barracuda
Queen - Somebody to Love
Bob Seger - Hollywood Nights
ZZ Top - Gimme All Your Lovin' [hey, this one's from 1983!]
Tom Petty - The Waiting [1981]
The Cars - Bye Bye Love
The Beatles - Something
The Eagles - Hotel California [we left during Joe Walsh's guitar solo, which I even paused at the door to listen to]

While I never listen to this stuff voluntarily (although I do own Eliminator, from which I would have played "Got Me Under Pressure" or "I Need You Tonight"), I enjoyed this set perfectly well (except for Bob Seger, whom I can do without). In a weird time-capsule sort of way. And "Bye Bye Love" has been running through my head constantly since then. Still, I'm not going back there, Asiago Peppercorn steak or no.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Let's not read too much into this

Abbas just sent me this picture:

The title of his email was "Duckrabbit!", but when I looked at it, all I saw was a duck. I mean, it's a duck – it's got wings, it's swimming in water, the whole duck bit. But then I looked more closely at the head, trying to see it as the rabbit-looking-the-other-way which is the other aspect of the famously ambiguous drawing. I succeeded; but it turned out to be a particularly unpleasant instance of aspect-dawning, as that perception was accompanied by a sickening wave of, let's say, Unheimlichkeit, as perhaps expressed in the utterance "Yikes, that is one seriously deformed rabbit" (what with the wings and all).

Then I looked at it a third time, and I noticed that indeed, it was picture of a duck onto which a rabbit head had been Photoshopped. (No doubt those who are more familiar with these creatures would have noticed that right away, but I rarely see either in the, um, flesh.) Now, having noticed the rabbit head as a rabbit head when looking to see the image as a rabbit, I now see the duck as well (and can hardly believe I failed to do so earlier) only as a seriously effed up specimen of its kind – I mean, look at that soft furry beak!

So, a clever trick; but (to be way too literal about it) I think we lose something in the translation to photography. The duck part is clearly a duck and only a duck; and the rabbit part (once you see it!) is clearly a rabbit and not a duck. So in a way it's really not an ambiguous figure at all, just an impossible one – where the point of the duck-rabbit figure is that it really is a picture-duck, just as much as any other, and a picture-rabbit as well ... but not at the same time. And off to the philosophical races we go.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Baby steps

Okay, I said I was going to start 'er up again, but not surprisingly that is easier written than done. So let's start out small. I direct your attention to the Amazon widget, which I have restocked with more timely items than were in it previously. I'm up to page 587 or so of Anna Karenina, which means that after reading it for six weeks I am about a third of the way through. Right now (in Part Three) Anna's sister-in-law Darya Alexandrovna Oblonsky (aka Dolly) is talking with Konstantin Dmitrievich Levin, a rejected suitor for the hand of Dolly's sister Kitty, at Dolly's summer house. I expect we'll get back to Anna within the next hundred pages or so. (I should mention that the direct link to Amazon provided by the widget is to an edition of the book different from that indicated by the icon, so beware.)

I've already finished the other fictional work, The Half-Made World, which was pretty good but falls short of unconditional recommendation. It was recommended by a couple of people on a thread at Crooked Timber, where I have found they know their stuff, esp. when said stuff is science fiction-y; this book is an example of the subgenre known as "steampunk," if you know what that is. Without going into detail, I really like the set-up here, and the characters are great. I wasn't sure about the ending though, as it remains unclear whether the author is setting up a sequel or just allowing us to imagine for ourselves what happened next. Good stuff.

I've just started the Garry Hagberg book, which looks really good, if a bit intimidating in its thoroughness. The Cartesian subject/object dualism, which still pervades philosophy even after all this time, has two main aspects (duh). I say (duh), but in practice it seems very difficult to see them as related at all, let alone different aspects of the same thing. The Cartesian conception of objectivity is most directly manifested in doctrines of "metaphysical realism" in Putnam's sense (when arguing against it, that is, not when, Kerry-like, he was for it before he was against it). In such contexts we fight against it by trying to show how the Cartesian picture, in its seductive urging that we simply identify it with prephilosophical common sense ("of course there's a real world out there!"), forces incoherence upon us. I guess that's what we do in the other context too (where the bait is instead "of course my mental states are 'inner'!"), but the details end up making the two cases very different in practice. Anyway, in these former contexts we tend to spend all our time arguing about the possible senses in which the world is "real" or "independent" or "objective," and the Cartesian subject figures simply as the supposedly detached observer of the objective world however construed.

However, we can't arrive at a stable position no matter what we say about objectivity, unless we also deal with the Cartesian subject itself (qua Cartesian). Here our target is the Cartesian "inner," as manifested for example in Nagelian qualephilia or more overtly dualistic doctrines in the philosophy of mind (Chalmers, G. Strawson, etc.). But of course in this case the main charge against "dualism" has been led by materialists and other naturalists concerned to make the world safe for empirical science (here, brain science and other sorts of empirical psychology, including but not limited to evolutionary psychology). So what we end up with is a lot of straightforward reductionism/eliminativism and its more discreet heirs, all concerned to emphasize (properly enough as far as it goes) the publicity and non-spookiness of "subjective" phenomena like mental states. However, in its often overt scientism this line tends to leave in place, or at the very least not replace, the very conception of objectivity which is the subjective correlate of their target. This leaves them open to counterattack, although rarely in those very terms.

In any case these two anti-Cartesian projects have not really been brought into line with each other in a satisfactory way. Rorty and to a lesser extent Dennett (in his case you have to dig it out as he is not exactly forthcoming on the matter) have been onto this, but each takes some pretty important missteps by my lights. Davidson and Wittgenstein are more promising guides, even though – or possibly because – neither makes a big deal out of marrying the one criticism to the other, instead simply pursuing a more unified project from the beginning, and only subsequently allowing us to take this or that aspect of it for this or that purpose. (Or maybe we're just slow.)

Hagberg sees himself as promoting a Wittgensteinian view of subjectivity, as manifested in discussions of autobiographical writing, the philosophy of same, autobiography as philosophy, etc. – where the very overlapping of these topics is meant to bring out the Wittgensteinian nature of each, which seems promising. I read an earlier book, Art as Language, in which he argues, along Wittgensteinian lines, that art is not a language, making one wonder if perhaps another title would have been better. This new one, Describing Ourselves: Wittgenstein and Autobiographical Consciousness, looks to be written in the same style. I shouldn't complain (especially as I can do no better myself), but I have to say that this style – very, very carefully setting out the position and arguing very, very, carefully for its truth, or at least provisional plausibility, very, very carefully anticipating and defusing every. possible. objection. – makes me crazy. In some cases this is just what we want, but in Wittgensteinian contexts it really seems like one risks getting the words Just Right at the expense of messing the tune up big time. Alice Crary and Oskari Kuusela do it too, which is why I started their books with real anticipation but bogged down, like, right away. Like I said, though, I've just started the book so maybe I'm wrong.

One person who can't be said to do this is Cavell (but of course there are corresponding dangers to this approach too, as anyone who has tried to wade through Stephen Mulhall's books can tell you). His latest, which looks wild but which I have not yet begun, seems to be autobiographical, but only deals with the last few years, and only a particular line of thought/events within that time. I'll say more when and if I get to it (or not).

Lastly we have another book on Wittgenstein, on a topic very close to this blog's heart: aspect perception (and indeed there the d/r is right on the cover, along with the kid from Jarman's Wittgenstein, which I just saw the other day). It's a collection, and one of the editors, William Day, was a very advanced grad student in my program when I was there. This meant of course that I rarely saw him, and in fact I didn't even meet him until several years in, at a conference. Nicest guy you'll ever meet, and very impressive – as articulate on these matters as your humble blogger is stammeringly incoherent. So I very much look forward to reading this.