Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Summer's almost gone ...

... but there's still time for one more Philosopher's Carnival! Thanks CK!

By the way, philosophers, CK says that there weren't too many entries this time. So let's get thinking!

Monday, August 29, 2005

Too many cooks spoil the brouhaha

Which is one reason why I didn't join in the Theory's Empire dustup (now in remission) over at The Valve and other related sites. (Another is that I didn't have the book.) I did follow along, though, and I was struck by how defensive some people were about the very idea of such a collection. Isn't it obvious that taking a critical view of Theory isn't the same as (in increasing order of horrificness) 1) embracing bad old theories of literary meaning; 2) duh, being a troglodyte; 3) voting Republican?

However, I recently picked up the volume, and I have to admit that my first impression of it was that such viscerally negative reactions are perfectly understandable (if not particularly constructive). Like many other defenses of culture against Theory, the overall tone here seems – so far, anyway – to be not of level-headed engagement with esteemed but misguided colleagues, but instead of pouring boiling oil onto the barbarians at the gates (or on those already inside, raping and pillaging defenseless literature). I have still only skimmed it, but I've already run across some seriously snarky rhetoric: words like "glut" and "parrot" and "gospel" and "otiose" and "pervasive" and "gurus" and "bizarre" and "labyrinthine" and "obsessive." (No naked emperors yet, though; could we really have seen the last of that one??) The introduction sets the tone to which I refer; I was struck, for example, by this poisonous patch of purple prose, the peroration of the piece:
[I]t is evident that today's theoretical vocabulary has led to an intellectual void at the core of our educational endeavors, scarcely masked by all the posturing, political zealotry, pretentiousness[,] general lack of seriousness, and the massive opportunism that is particularly glaring in the extraordinary indifference to or outright attacks on logic and consistency (p.13).
Holy smoke! Not surprisingly, the most common digs at Theorists, here as elsewhere, are the ones attributing to them not simply some intellectual failing, but also some moral vice, usually hypocrisy: they reject all dogmatism – except their own! They claim to be working for the downtrodden – but they're self-absorbed fatcats! They claim to be doing new and exciting things – but they're unoriginal conformists, just putting new labels on the same tired old crap! Et cetera!

Now I would be the last to deny that this old shoe can find plenty of feet to fill it. (I actually have no clue as to the extent of the problem, as described. I last took an English course in 1980 (which was perfectly fine), and I haven't really run into it that much myself. On the other hand, there is a vaguely analogous doctrinal divide in philosophy between "analytic" and "continental" philosophy; but it's not the same – even though Hegel, for example, is making a half-hearted comeback, no-one's getting rich and famous touting Hegelian Theory, and stacking whole departments with ambitious acolytes. It did get ugly a while back, though, I understand, with power grabs at the annual convention, etc. But nothing like the Theory wars, since no-one cares about philosophy anyway.) The more worthless the material in question, though, the less informative it is to hear that we need to rouse the troops to combat it. Politically motivated sophomoric-relativist nonsense? Sounds ghastly; let's get rid of it. But 700 pages of abuse is not going to get us there, so I sincerely hope this isn't all there is to the book.

Of course the editors are as concerned to deny personal animus as they are to disavow regressive tendencies (i.e., "the predictable charges hurled against critics of Theory"). No,
what is particularly noticeably in our authors' writings is the general lack of ad hominem attacks, even when confronting some of the more preposterous and unreadably convoluted theories. They concentrate not on personality—as central an issue as Theory's stars have made this in cultivating their public personae—but instead on logic, reason, and evidence, concepts without which [oh, thanks so much for pointing this out] it is impossible to have any sort of fruitful intellectual exchange. They are mindful [...] that the habit of many theorists to make claims without showing any awareness of the highly contentious nature of their premises and reasoning is a symptom of the poor standard of argumentation prevailing in modern literary theory (p.7).
Amazing. An ad hominem attack right in the middle of a passage trumpeting the virtuous lack of same. Not promising. However, Morris Dickstein, a contributor to the book and the editor of a decent anthology on pragmatism, assures us that "Theory’s Empire confines itself to serious academic critiques," so I suppose I should keep reading.

Of particular interest to me are the selections making up the section entitled "Restoring Reason," which discusses the science-wars aspect of the matter (with perhaps predictably heavy emphasis on the Sokal affair). I turned to these first, because that's where the stuff about truth and objectivity is (our barbarians are relativists, after all, when they're not being dogmatic). I have mixed feelings about the results, but that's a topic for another post.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Now that's acting

Olivier Gourmet (nice name) won the Best Actor award at Cannes in 2002 for his performance in the Dardennes' The Son, and having finished up viewing the film last night (I shouldn't watch movies in installments, and I'm sure this one lost a little impact because of it, but as it turned out there was plenty left), I can see why. He plays a carpentry instructor at a trade school, who for reasons I will not go into (we ourselves only find out half an hour in), is torn between two opposing emotions and corresponding courses of action, both compatible with what we actually see him do. In an interview included on the DVD, Gourmet (looking quite different) explains that it was very hard to play "I don't know" – a single motivation, even a complex one, can be signaled in any number of conventional ways, but how do you show one emotion "canceled out" (I would rather say "held in check") by another, so that neither is manifested overtly during the struggle? We find ourselves noticing any clue, however small – a tic, a frown, a snappy remark. Gourmet's control over his body is remarkable; check out his gait for example, or his brisk, efficient movements when washing his hands or doing carpentry. The camera, most if not all handheld, is in his face (or on the back of his neck) throughout – there's one shot where he sends a student to get something from across the room and the camera remains on Gourmet's staring face the whole time. There's also an amazing, apparently continuous shot where someone in the passenger seat of a car (shot from the back seat) steps into the back seat to lie down, which must have required some serious acrobatics by the cameraman (who of course ends up in the passenger seat). Very intense film. Now I have to see La Promesse (same actor, same directors, same Cannes result).

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Duck days indeed

Some odds and ends for these hot summer days:

Here's a handsome lad.

And in other news, those philosophers are carnivaling again. Thanks Gracchi! I particularly liked the post from TAR about non-philosophers' ideas of what we do; some great stories there, plus some interesting reflections. Check it out!

Coincidentally, today's Dilbert addresses the same issue, believe it or not. Dilbert is out on a date, and addresses his companion thus:
Dilbert: No one ever wants to take more than half of what's left of the last doughnut. That's why I call it Xeno's [sic] doughnut. Hee hee!

Dinner companion drains glass.

Passing waitress, to dinner companion: I heard some of that. Do you want to switch to hard liquor?

Dinner companion, holding out glass: Hurry.
Sigh. Of course, that's Zeno of Elea he's talking about, not Zeno of Citium! Zeno of Citium's doughnut would remain untouched on the plate! Ha ha! (Oog.)

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Cinema of war

The other night I watched a movie about a ragged but plucky band of comrades and their valiant resistance against the oppressive force occupying their country. I am of course perfectly capable of telling the difference between this and that; but I have to say it was a just a bit creepy being encouraged to cheer when our heroes carry out a roadside ambush against the occupying army's passing vehicles. The film was Roberto Rossellini's Roma, città aperta (a.k.a. Open City), made amazingly soon after the war (in 1945, in fact). It's a very effective example of its type (which of course was new at the time). Two things stood out for me: first, in the screen time she's allotted Anna Magnani is a force of nature (see her also, equally forceful if not more so, in Pasolini's Mamma Roma); and second, the gripping ending -- not only the final scene, but the scene before that, especially the spectacular shot of the tortured prisoner and the priest's reaction to it. You absolutely cannot get away with that kind of thing anymore, but in the days before our (in this sense) jaded age, it would have worked perfectly (exercise for the reader: how would Bresson have done it, or Renoir?). Oh, and another spectacular shot (of a different kind): when the Nazi soldier peers out the door and looks toward the camera, with a fleeing resistance fighter still visible, pausing, in the background behind him. Wow.

One problem, though: the subtitlers are frustratingly chary with their aid, sometimes rendering no more than every third line. Luckily my (operatic) Italian is serviceable, so I didn't miss too much, but be warned.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Body beautiful?

Maybe you heard about that museum in Vienna that let you in free to see their exhibit of early 1900's erotic art if you showed up (as the Times puts it in today's Arts section) "nude or scantily clad." My attitude: whatever. But they need to get their story straight. The Times quotes the museum's Elisabeth Leopold as explaining: "We find a naked body every bit as beautiful as a clothed one." Fair enough, depending perhaps on which body we're talking about (Henry Kissinger: keep your clothes on). But the museum isn't showing Raphael or even Bernini; they're showing Klimt and that twisted perv (and I mean that in a good way) Egon Schiele (one of my faves). This is presumably why director Peter Weinhaupt says that he hoped to (again in the Times's words) "create a mini-scandal reminiscent of the one that first surrounded the paintings." Again: whatever. But if "mini-scandal" is the point, the idea that nudity is no big deal makes no sense. And of course if you know Schiele at all, you know: it ain't the nudity. What is interesting about Schiele, and what makes him great, is that the self-portraits are just as twisted, and, seemingly, in the same way, as the erotic ones. And that's the scandal.