Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Monday, September 30, 2013

What, exactly, is alive with the sound of music?

My attention was directed to a short Japanese film. I am late in commenting on this (it originally went up in march of last year), but in case you have not seen it I am putting the link first, before any of my more or less haphazard remarks, so you can enjoy it unimpeded by what I say. There are actually two videos; each is barely over 3 minutes long (the second is a mini-documentary on the making of the first). Click Here, then if you still feel interested, come back.

OK, so where was I?

There is a great deal that could be said here about the relationship between the forest, the stream, the birds and the deer, the cell phone, the boom mike, the proportions of wood weight and density that give rise to individual notes that, taken together in order, comprise a piece of music. Is it just another in the long, long, long series of moves by which capitalism appropriates art and/or nature, or can it be read as art appropriating capitalism? Is this even an interesting question? Is the idea that something like Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring being "appropriated" by something like capitalism laughable, or spooky, or just trivial, or...?

Sue Thompson in her just-published Technobiophilia considers the extensive interface between our attraction to cyber-tech and our attraction to (what's left of) the natural world (and yes, I know "nature" is a construct, I'm writing shorthand here). In an interview Thompson conducted with Kevin Kelley which I presume made it into the book (it's just been published, so I haven't had time to see it yet), Kelley remarks:
Just as we go into a redwood grove and get that cathedral-like feeling, I think that as the Internet continues to complexify and become larger, it will also become a spiritual place where people will retreat to feel something bigger than themselves.
Well, on the one hand, any human endeavor that stays around very long is going to "become spiritual". On the other hand, note that he doesn't say we go into a cathedral to get that redwood-grove-like feeling. Is this part of the problem, or does it point us to something about the grammar of the "feeling" we're talking about? (On the other hand, there is something I balk at when I find "the spiritual" spoken of in terms of feeling, as though that were its primary locus. This needs a lot more unpacking; it isn't the main point here.)

But the grove and the cathedral do shed light on one another, and the comparison makes me see this online film a little differently. When I consider the exquisite care that must have gone into the preparation for this film, my response is somewhat akin to what I feel looking at a stained glass window and thinking of (among other things) the tremendous human effort it represents -- hours and hours of coloring, cutting, and shaping the glass, fitting it into place with strips of lead, carefully, carefully raising it up hundreds of feet into the air, by pulley and rope, to insert it into the stone wall. Moreover, the appearance of the cell phone at the end of the film does not feel like "product placement" analogous to having the hero of an action movie refresh himself with a soft drink between bouts of kicking bad guys' asses. It seems more akin to a medieval guild paying for a panel of stained glass window or altarpiece in a medieval cathedral, and being included in a little picture in detail. But I'm not sure this is the right analogy either.

Bach's melody was the very first one (that I recall) to furnish evidence to my young mind of the existence of Platonic forms. It seemed to me obvious, even at the age of 8 or however old I was, that the music had been discovered not invented. As I listen to it in this permutation, it still seems obvious.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Brief Blog Reviews IX: Poems and Poetics

This month's Brief Blog Review, of Jerome Rothenberg's Poems and Poetics, is one I have planned to do for a while. I am glad I waited until now, though, because it now follows quick on the heels of the publication by Black Widow Press of Eye of Witness: a Jerome Rothenberg Reader, a retrospective look at Rothenberg's extremely long, prolific, and important career as one of our foremost poet-critics. It would be an exaggeration, but a forgivable one, to call Rothenberg the father of comparative poetics. His early anthologies, Technicians of the Sacred and Symposium of the Whole, introduced many of us to things like Navajo creation stories and the Chinese Book of Songs. To read these things side-by-side with Plato or The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, in a setting like Rothenberg's which so clearly bespoke respect and care for the original context of the work, was for me a formative experience. Here the assumption was at work that one could meaningfully compare Robert Duncan, songs from the Bantu or the Cherokee, Li Po, or Lady Murasaki, without doing violence to any of them, neither handing them over to the careful handling of experts nor slapping them together as though they were all "saying the same thing," but simply treating them as all mutually relevant in a tremendous ongoing conversation that it would take the rest of one's life to begin to enter oneself. Reading these books in my early 20's permanently cured me of any fear of trespassing.

When I discovered, a couple of years ago, that Rothenberg was blogging, I had two thoughts. One was a kind of not being able to believe the good luck. The other was, Of course. Rothenberg comes out of the great experimental and democratic tradition of poetry, that welcomes all comers, and will try anything twice. Of course he would jump into this medium with both feet. Of course he would self-publish. Of course he would put his email address up. His is the tradition of William Carlos Williams, Stanley Burnshaw, and Guy Davenport -- of great learning matched with great generosity.

This lineage, moreover, is a stream of thought that has kept faith with the conception of poetry as a wisdom tradition. It is rooted in a worldwide practice of myth and storytelling and singing, a practice that has not learned to despair even in the face of everything the twentieth century could throw at it. You can just splash around over at Poems and Poetics and not come to the end for a long while. Rothenberg sometimes posts up to two or three times a week, and his archives go back five years. You will wind up learning much, much more about world literature. But you might also come away nourished and steeled for the fight.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Bad Arguments and Bad Manners

It has been said that metaphysics is the finding of bad reasons for what we believe on instinct. -- W. Somerset Maugham, The Summing Up
Brandon at Siris has written a number of good posts over the years on the taxonomy, lore, and misuse of the notion of fallacy. Having stumbled, not long ago, on his article in First Things on Reification, I was moved to the following few reflections (not as deep as his), when I encountered this cutely-illustrated Little Book of Bad Arguments recently and was struck again by how much this word "fallacy" is abused, and used to abuse. (It is not sufficient, to refute an contention, to say, "But that's a slippery slope argument!" One must say why, in any particular case, the particular slippery slope argument is not compelling.)

The book gives an example of the "fallacy of irrelevant authority": "Astrology was practiced by technologically advanced civilizations such as the Ancient Chinese. Therefore, it must be true." Put this way, of course, this is clearly fallacious. But the observation that "Astrology was practiced by technologically advanced civilizations such as the Ancient Chinese" might well feature as an exhibit in a set of arguments aiming to demonstrate the plausibility of astrology. It functions more or less as a kind of testimonial, as in a court of law or in a résumé. It is meant to establish the credentials of astrology in light of the fact that it is associated with a culture we have, presumably, other grounds for respecting. "Practiced by the ancient Chinese" here serves as an index, not (on pain of fallacy) as proof. (One possible rejoinder here, of course can be, "Yes, so was foot-binding," which presumably would press the champion of astrology to explain why the precedent matters in one case and not -- let us hope -- in the other).

One sees a variation on this from time to time in what amounts to informal "expert testimony" in various disputes, e.g. about science and religion. Someone points to Professor N., a respected professor of molecular biology or cosmology who is also a member in good standing at the local mosque or synagogue. This is frequently met with groans, and rightly so if it is supposed to demonstrate anything very far-reaching, like God's existence. But it is certainly a relevant piece of evidence for the claim that it is possible to believe in God and be a practicing scientist. The counter-interpretation that "all it proves is that scientists are not immune to wishful thinking," or "scientists can intellectually compartmentalize too," is just that -- an interpretation. If someone wanted to argue for the claim that scientists can intellectually compartmentalize and hold incompatible beliefs, and they adduced as evidence the example of Professor N., they would have (on certain premises) a decent Exhibit A, but to hold that this clinched the matter would be, well, fallacious.

Then there are the times when no fallacy has been committed at all. The most frequent occasion for this, depressingly common, is the accusation of "ad hominem" in a case like:
He thinks that's evidence that there must be a God? My God, he's an idiot!
This is, strictly, different from:
Yeah, he has an "argument" for God's existence, but why even consider it? He's an idiot!
Both arguments exhibit bad manners, but only one of them is, strictly, a fallacy (unless you want to quibble that the definition of "idiot" haven't been clarified sufficiently).

Very frequently, when tempted to cry "fallacy!," what one really means is that a step in the argument has been left out (or more than one). Rather than snort "ad hominem!" or "reification!" or "slippery slope!", the proper (and Socratic) response to most instances of apparent fallacy is "And why is this relevant?" When you remember your manners and press someone to explain the omitted steps, not only do they usually see where their own case is weak without your rubbing their nose in it, but both parties expand the context from which they are arguing. What is really at stake, motivating the dispute, becomes clearer, and very often, you find it is not what you thought it was at first.

Moreover, it is worth recalling that even a true claim can be argued for (badly, of course) with fallacious reasoning. (And, to be sure, rudely, as well.) To think otherwise is --