Tag Archives: Thought

The Berlin wall had to fall, but today’s world is no fairer

Mikhail Gorbachev in the Guardian:

Twenty years have passed since the fall of the Berlin wall, one of the shameful symbols of the cold war and the dangerous division of the world into opposing blocks and spheres of influence. Today we can revisit the events of those times and take stock of them in a less emotional and more rational way.

The first optimistic observation to be made is that the announced “end of history” has not come about, though many claimed it had. But neither has the world that many politicians of my generation trusted and sincerely believed in: one in which, with the end of the cold war, humankind could finally forget the absurdity of the arms race, dangerous regional conflicts, and sterile ideological disputes, and enter a golden century of collective security, the rational use of material resources, the end of poverty and inequality, and restored harmony with nature.

Another important consequence of the end of the cold war is the realisation of one of the central postulates of New Thinking: the interdependence of extremely important elements that go to the very heart of the existence and development of humankind. This involves not only processes and events occurring on different continents but also the organic linkage between changes in the economic, technological, social, demographic and cultural conditions that determine the daily existence of billions of people on our planet. In effect, humankind has started to transform itself into a single civilisation.

At the same time, the disappearance of the iron curtain and barriers and borders, unexpected by many, made possible connections between countries that until recently had different political systems, as well as different civilisations, cultures and traditions.

Naturally, we politicians from the last century can be proud of the fact that we avoided the danger of a thermonuclear war. However, for many millions of people around the globe, the world has not become a safer place. Quite to the contrary, innumerable local conflicts and ethnic and religious wars have appeared like a curse on the new map of world politics, creating large numbers of victims.


Why are we still reading Dickens?


As someone who teaches and writes about Dickens, the question of why we still read him is something that’s often on my mind. But that question was never more troubling than one day, nearly 10 years ago, when I was standing as a guest speaker in front of a class of about 30 high school students. I had been speaking for about 20 minutes with an 1850 copy of David Copperfield in my hand, telling the students that for Victorian readers, Dickens’s writing was very much a “tune-in-next-week” type of thing that generated trends and crazes, much as their own TV shows did for them today.

Then a hand shot up in the middle of the room.

“But why should we still read this stuff?”

I was speechless because in that moment I realised that, though I had begun a PhD dissertation on Dickens, I had never pondered the question myself.

The answer I gave was acceptable: “Because he teaches you how to think,” I said. But lots of writers can teach you how to think, and I knew that wasn’t really the reason.

The question nagged me for years, and for years I told myself answers, but never with complete satisfaction. We read Dickens not just because he was a man of his own times, but because he was a man for our times as well. We read Dickens because his perception and investigation of the human psyche is deep, precise, and illuminating, and because he tells us things about ourselves by portraying personality traits and habits that might seem all too familiar. His messages about poverty and charity have travelled through decades, and we can learn from the experiences of his characters almost as easily as we can learn from our own experiences.

These are all wonderful reasons to read Dickens. But these are not exactly the reasons why I read Dickens.

My search for an answer continued but never with success, until one year the little flicker came – not surprisingly – from another high school student ()

Book ‘Em –It’s criminal how much some people love books.


Whatever their motivation, however, book collectors help to preserve this physical culture and ensure that our printed matter will still exist in the future. They are the most likely to fight libraries for the preservation of old newspapers or dig around estate sales and attics to find lost manuscripts by writers like Poe or Blake. Book thieves, on the other hand, not only destroy our cultural artifacts, but also hinder an understanding of our history. Most book thieves are misunderstood by the criminal justice system as petty criminals, and they are let go with slaps on the wrist. Gilkey was one such criminal until members of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America banded together under the watch of Ken Sanders and assisted in sting operations and helped document his crimes. The ABAA continues to fight for longer sentences and heftier fines, as many of these book thieves are repeat offenders. Hopefully more judges will follow the lead of the one presiding over the trial of Daniel Spiegelman, subject of Travis McDade’s 2006 The Book Thief, whose bounty totaled $1.8 million in rare books and documents, including a 13th-century Euclidean geometry textbook. In her decision, the judge stated, “This crime was quite different from the theft of cash equal to the appraised value of the materials stolen, because it deprived not only Columbia [University], but the world, of irreplaceable pieces of the past and the benefits of future scholarship.”

Reading Bartlett’s descriptions of book collections and the attachments people have to them was particularly bittersweet

(for @Maikwl =)

Umberto Eco: The lost art of handwriting

Recently, two Italian journalists wrote a three-page newspaper article (in print, alas) about the decline of handwriting. By now it’s well-known: most kids – what with computers (when they use them) and text messages – can no longer write by hand, except in laboured capital letters.

In an interview, a teacher said that students also make lots of spelling mistakes, which strikes me as a separate problem: doctors know how to spell and yet they write poorly; and you can be an expert calligrapher and still write “guage” or “gage” instead of “gauge”.

I know children whose handwriting is fairly good. But the article talks of 50% of Italian kids – and so I suppose it is thanks to an indulgent destiny that I frequent the other 50% (something that happens to me in the political arena, too).

The tragedy began long before the computer and the cellphone.

My parents’ handwriting was slightly slanted because they held the sheet at an angle, and their letters were, at least by today’s standards, minor works of art. At the time, some – probably those with poor hand- writing – said that fine writing was the art of fools. It’s obvious that fine handwriting does not necessarily mean fine intelligence. But it was pleasing to read notes or documents written as they should be.

My generation was schooled in good handwriting, and we spent the first months of elementary school learning to make the strokes of letters. The exercise was later held to be obtuse and repressive but it taught us to keep our wrists steady as we used our pens to form letters rounded and plump on one side and finely drawn on the other. Well, not always – because the inkwells, with which we soiled our desks, notebooks, fingers and clothing, would often produce a foul sludge that stuck to the pen and took 10 minutes of mucky contortions to clean.

The crisis began with the advent of the ballpoint pen. ()

Jane Mayer: Calling Hannah Arendt

There is also a less famous observation by Arendt, made in The New York Review of Books in the wake of the protests of 1968 and shared with me by Georgetown Law professor David Luban, that captures the problem faced by the Obama Administration in its attempt to hold the right officials accountable. She calls it the “rule by Nobody.” Attorney General Eric Holder is stuck trying to investigate an entire bureaucracy. Those on the top can claim to have clean hands, while those on the bottom can claim they were following ostensibly legal orders. What’s left, Arendt suggests, is an all-powerful government that is beyond accountability.

Here’s what she wrote:

These definitions coincide with the terms which, since Greek antiquity, have been used to define the forms of government as the rule of man over man—of one or the few in monarchy and oligarchy, of the best or the many in aristocracy and democracy, to which today we ought to add the latest and perhaps most formidable form of such dominion, bureaucracy, or the rule by an intricate system of bureaux in which no men, neither one nor the best, neither the few nor the many, can be held responsible, and which could be properly called the rule by Nobody. Indeed, if we identify tyranny as the government that is not held to give account of itself, rule by Nobody is clearly the most tyrannical of all, since there is no one left who could even be asked to answer for what is being done. It is this state of affairs which is among the most potent causes for the current world-wide rebellious unrest.

Looking for an Honest Man

Life would be no better than candlelight
tinsel and daylight rubbish if our spirits were
not touched by what has been, to issues of
longing and constancy.

—George Eliot, Middlemarch

If asked to identify important topics for a new journal on national affairs, few of us would think first — if at all — of the humanities and their condition in American life today. The sorry state of elementary and secondary education would surely make the list, as might the need to improve scientific literacy and technological competence, so that, as we are often told, America may remain “competitive” in the globalized economy and high-tech world of tomorrow. Attention might be invited also to political correctness in college classrooms or campus restrictions on free speech. But the larger and more important educational issue of what college students should be learning and why — and especially in the humanities — is a subject below the radar for nearly everyone.

It was not always thus. Fifty years ago, when Europeans and Americans still distinguished high culture from popular culture, and when classical learning was still highly esteemed in colleges and universities, C. P. Snow delivered his famous Rede Lecture at Cambridge University, “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution.” Snow did more than warn of the growing split between the old culture of the humanities and the rising culture of science. He took Britain’s literary aristocracy to task for its dangerous dismissal of scientific and technological progress, which Snow believed offered the solutions to the world’s deepest problems. In a vitriolic response to Snow, the literary critic F. R. Leavis defended the primacy of the humanities for a civilizing education, insisting that science must not be allowed to operate outside of the moral norms that a first-rate humanistic education alone could provide. The Snow-Leavis debate spread also to this side of the Atlantic, triggering for a time serious and searching discussions regarding the aims of higher education and the importance of the humanities.

Such discussions have, alas, largely disappeared not only from public discourse but even within the academy. Most professors in nearly all of our leading universities prefer to leave and be left alone, justifying their self-serving indifference to the goals and requirements of a liberal education by proclaiming for their students the American trumping value of choice. For themselves, they trumpet the maxim of Chairman Mao: “Let a thousand flowers bloom.” In contrast to 50 years ago, few licensed humanists today embrace any view of the humanities that could in fact justify making them the centerpiece of a college curriculum. This abdication is especially regrettable because it comes precisely at a time in which, thanks largely to the successes of Snow’s beloved scientific and technological revolutions, the meaning and future of our humanity cry out for serious and thoughtful attention. ()

(via Maurice)

Antonioni’s The Passenger as Lacanian Text

Old but relevant.


In Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1975 film The Passenger, the main character, David Locke,[1] portrayed by Jack Nicholson, impulsively “trades in” his own life for that of another man who resembles him and who dies in an adjacent hotel room in Africa. Locke is attempting to escape the painful prison of his own life and enter the realms of possibility and enticing mystery represented by the life of another; in other words, he is trying to create reality from a common fantasy. He is trying to rewrite the narrative of his life, and he is hoping to “become” someone else, just as many moviegoers do vicariously while in the theater. Unfortunately he lies to himself and ignores the fact that any s uch trade, outside the seemingly magical environment of the cinema, is going to include the sometimes startling sensations associated not only with risk and change but with a different perspective, based on the history of the life one is stepping into; his escapism is also analogous to suicide, a rejection of one’s own history and possibilities. Locke’s story shows that lying to oneself by trying to live in what Jacques Lacan referred to as the Imaginary (a fantasy world) is even more perilous and self-d estructive than lying to others.

According to Antonioni, “The greatest danger for those working in cinema is the extraordinary possibilities it offers for lying” (in Samuels 31). In The Passenger, Rachel Locke asks her husband, David, a reporter (the film was originally titled “The Reporter”), why he did not point out that the president of an African nation was obviously lying during an interview. He replies, “Because those are the rules.” It is precisely because Antonioni himself breaks the rules of cinematic tradition and “grammar,” and because of the artful way he does so that The Passenger unmistakably achieves a “vision of the real,” not only in novelist/philosopher Iris Murdoch’s terms but in Lacan’s. In the process, the film does something even more important. Normally “the cinema . . . confines the spectator in an illusory identity, by a play of self-images” (Elsaesser 43); the film frame acts as a mirror wherein the viewer sees himself through some type of identification, usually with a character. By continually frustrating identification, Antonioni saves the audience from immersing themselves in the same type of “Imaginary plenitude” that ultimately proves fatal for Locke, and through the use of eccentric camera angles and unusual editing, Antonioni also demonstrates the possibility of new, healthier ways of seeing and living.

The film works as a powerful psychological allegory that fits the framework of Lacan’s primary matrix (Imaginary, Symbolic, Real) and even seems to be based on such a pattern, with Locke representing the Imaginary; his wife, Rachel, and his producer, Martin Knight, the Symbolic; and the Girl standing for the Real.[2] There are also three mirrors featured prominently in the film, each one a Lacanian text within the text. ()

Money, Desire, Pleasure, Pain

Spinoza approached human emotions the way Euclid approached triangles and squares, aiming to understand their inter-relations by means of principles, logic and deduction.

Spinoza’s primitives were pain, pleasure and desire. Everyone who inhabits a human body recognizes these feelings. Just as financial stock options are derivatives that depend on the underlying stock price, so more complex emotions depend on these three primitives pain, pleasure and desire.

Love or hate, then, is pleasure or pain associated with an external object. Hope is the expectation of future pleasure tinged with doubt. Joy is simply the pleasure we experience when that doubtful expectation materializes. Envy is pain at another’s pleasure. Cruelty is a hybrid of all three primitives: it is the desire to inflict pain on someone we love. And so on to all the other emotions …

Figure 1 is a simple diagram I constructed to illustrate Spinoza’s scheme. For Spinoza, good is everything that brings pleasure, and Evil is everything that brings pain. And happiness is good.

Figure 1: Spinoza’s model of emotions


But how does money fit into Spinoza’s scheme?


* My Life as a Quant: Reflections on Physics and Finance
by Emanuel Derman

An Easy Way to Increase Creativity

Creativity is commonly thought of as a personality trait that resides within the individual. We count on creative people to produce the songs, movies, and books we love; to invent the new gadgets that can change our lives; and to discover the new scientific theories and philosophies that can change the way we view the world. Over the past several years, however, social psychologists have discovered that creativity is not only a characteristic of the individual, but may also change depending on the situation and context. The question, of course, is what those situations are: what makes us more creative at times and less creative at others?

One answer is psychological distance. According to the construal level theory (CLT) of psychological distance, anything that we do not experience as occurring now, here, and to ourselves falls into the “psychologically distant” category. It’s also possible to induce a state of “psychological distance” simply by changing the way we think about a particular problem, such as attempting to take another person’s perspective, or by thinking of the question as if it were unreal and unlikely. In this new paper, by Lile Jia and colleagues at Indiana University at Bloomington, scientists have demonstrated that increasing psychological distance so that a problem feels farther away can actually increase creativity.


The Way We Have Become: A Surfeit of Seeming

We are the bees of the invisible.
–Rainer Maria Rlike, Letters

To be visible all the time –to live in a swarm of eyes– surely that leaves its mark on the face.
–Tomas Tranströmer, “Solitude”

The way we live: when I think of that in the cusp of some small frustration—say, holding the phone waiting for a warm-bodied techie—random themes begin to buzz in my brain, like restless bees in a hive. Themes like politics, marketing, celebrity, trust, art, the void. How can I quiet these themes, these concerns, long enough to make sense of the noise?

I do not mean to make an essay out of the tribulations of writing an essay—that’s tacky; I mean only to explain my title as a bewildered approach to the multitudinous present, the way we have become. It’s a large topic, relevant to what V. S. Naipaul called “our universal civilization,” relevant also to all those errant souls—immigrants, refugees, displaced persons, expatriates like myself—wandering the earth. It’s a large topic, but I have tried to hew to a particular line: the tyranny of appearances, a surfeit of seeming in America. Yes, now things must seem, not be.

Bees buzz and also sting. The line I have taken may not always please. But I suspect that even Candide knew in his heart of hearts that whatever is, is not always, well, cool. The difficulty is tact: how to give dissatisfaction its due without slighting the fecundity of the present. In the end, Emerson said, temperament is the “iron wire on which the beads are strung.” In this text, temperament and autobiography do serve as wire, but also something else. Something impersonal. (No, not postmodern theory.) Call it an aspiration to reality beyond the delirium of appearances. That is also to say, an invocation of truth, not absolute but fiduciary—a truth we can trust—as mind, in its give and take, reckons with the world.

But truth, trust, and mind can be weasel words. Some clarification of them, as they apply to this essay, is due before we start fingering the beads.

Philosophers have long puzzled trust as they have puzzled truth. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates and Glaucon debate whether trust depends on fear of detection, as in the case of the shepherd Gyges, who found a gold, magic ring in the Lydian wilderness and considered keeping it. This perspective, rooted in rank self-interest, informs subsequent discussions, through Machiavelli and Hobbes and on down to John Nash’s solution—yes, think Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind—of the Prisoner’s Dilemma in game theory. Another perspective, developed by Locke, Hume, Kant, and Rousseau, takes a more benevolent view of human nature, locating trust in love, sympathy, moral responsibility. Then there’s the leap of faith, Kierkegaardian or otherwise, that finds truth and trust—now fused—in a spiritual impulse that overwhelms doubt, defies the weight of the world.

And now? We perceive a crisis of trust, a dearth of veracity, everywhere. (This is not an American dilemma only, as Onora O’Neill’s Reith Lectures of 2002, in Britain, suggest.) Still, I am not wholly persuaded that America has become a culture of mistrust.