Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Time and History Don't Finish: They Stop

I should stop apologizing for going longer than a week between updates. I don’t do so normally, but I warned that when the blog began, there would be longer gaps between entries, and I would do my best always to have something to say. The first few weeks of this semester are considerably busy, although I don’t feel hectic or swept away by events as I did sometimes around this time last year. Because while I have a lot to do, I know exactly what I’m doing. And busy-ness is never stressful when you know precisely what you have to do.

One of the rather fascinating things I’m working on this Fall is the last lecture course for my breadth-of-knowledge requirement in my degree: Nick Griffin’s History of Analytic Philosophy. We’re concentrating in the lectures and planned course reading material on the birth of analytic philosophy in the rebellion of Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore against the British neoHegelians.

As I’ve learned more about the philosophy of the king of 19th century UK neoHegelians, Fred Bradley, I’ve realized that this movement barely deserved the name neoHegelian. That implies that they were strong followers of the philosophy of Hegel. While they thought they were followers of Hegel, I find the way Bradley approaches certain concepts like reality, appearance, and the Absolute to be completely different than Hegel’s own. Bradley seemed to have taken the catchphrase from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, “The real is the rational, and the rational is the real,” far too literally. Bradley takes this to mean that the only true reality is the immediately logically consistent, and that all else (eg. matter, space, time, self) is illusory or unreal. And he takes the Absolute to be the only reality, that about which we can say nothing because to say is to introduce distinctions, and reality is without difference.

I was slack-jawed listening to this, which to my thinking, is a total anathema to Hegel’s thinking. He never should have written that catchphrase, which has been so stupidly misinterpreted. All this means is that thinking, thought well, can work out the nature of reality without confusion. And Hegel thought we could know plenty about the Absolute, which covered all the contradictory and inconsistent in the universe. The unity of all this craziness was achieved in thought that became flexible (like a gymnast is flexible) enough to encompass it all in systematic thinking. Reality is discovered and systematized through thought.

Much of this last is quite similar to my own philosophical thinking, which also owes debts to Wittgenstein, Deleuze, Merleau-Ponty, Nietzsche, and Humberto Maturana as much as my quirky readings of Kant and Hegel. I was first taught the Hegel of Alexandre Kojève, even though he was never credited as a source. My own issues with Hegel have to do with the pervasiveness of necessity in his understanding of the universe, which gives rise to the kinds of moronic raving visions of the End of History that we saw coming out of Francis Fukuyama in the 1990s. And we all know how that little utopian vision turned out. That reliance on the necessary rather than the contingent is what prevents me from even leaning towards self-identifying as a Hegelian. But even if I did, my philosophical ideas would be closer to him than I think Bradley’s were.

Monday, September 14, 2009

"Nobody Ever Wants to Fight," said Dalton

The two big entertainment news stories right now are Patrick Swayze being dead, and Kanye West being a drunk arse. Edgar Wright already said everything that needed to be said about how awesome Swayze is, and I can contribute no more than the title of this post. But Monday morning, looking through my tweets and facebookings about Kanye’s interrupting Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech, I had a moment flashing to another possible world where I was a writer for Saturday Night Live.

My imagined sketch making fun of Kanye goes like this. Barack Obama is delivering an important speech about nuclear weapons reduction treaties, universally accessible health insurance, and why domestic violence is bad. Then Kanye West storms the stage and starts yelling into the microphone about how Obama is the greatest president of all time, and will be until Kanye himself is elected to the post. The secret service men grab Kanye and are about to pull him offstage when Obama asks them to hold him. And the president very nicely asks Kanye why he interrupted him, Taylor Swift, and Vladimir Putin. But Kanye says he doesn’t want to talk about Putin.

Some wavy lines flash back to Vladimir Putin making a speech about why Russia is awesome, choking Ukraine dry of oil, and bringing Europe to its knees. Then Kanye West storms the stage and starts yelling into the microphone about how Beyoncé released a better video than Putin this year, when all the Russian PM could do was cavort with a horse in the countryside.

As Putin judo chops Kanye in the neck and puts him in a headlock, some more wavy lines flash back to Putin’s video shoot. Putin has his shirt off, and while feeding a horse, talks to the camera about how he is the only man manly enough to rule Russia. Then Kanye West jumps into the shot, talking about how boring his video is, that Barack Obama is in better shape than Putin, and that Hype Williams could have made a better propaganda video. For one thing, Hype would have included a man dancing in a panda suit for no reason. Having surprised Putin, Kanye is able to steal Putin’s horse and ride into the distance.

Some wavy lines bring us back to the press conference in Russia, where the still headlocked Kanye admits that he gave the horse to Jamie Foxx as a birthday present. Putin throws Kanye to his own phalanx of bodyguards, and says they are going on a little trip to Los Angeles, to visit one Jamie Foxx.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A Basterd's Work Really Is Never Done

So after over a week of classes starting again, the first-day party, having to wake up four hours after the first-day party for a class for which I’m a tutor, then hitching onto the Dave Campbell PhD defense party train, I was completely unable to blog. My ideas about Inglourious Basterds have been stewing in the back of my brain ever since then, and now I finally get the opportunity to lay them all out in a place where they might actually be read.

When the movie first came out, I remember some reactions saying Tarantino was anti-Semitic because it was so ahistorical. There’s always the temptation, because the Second World War carried out violence on so massive a scale that humanity itself could have approached destruction, to treat the period with reverence. To play with its history on anything more than a minor scale, like inventing fictional units that still conformed to the major sweep of the period which every such film did, could have been considered blasphemous.

But the only thing remarkable in the Second World War was the technological growth that made such mass mechanized slaughter possible. Humanity is always this brutal, and if the technology to do so had existed in any war in the past, it would have been used. The wars Hitler and Hirohito started were motivated by the same drives as any war of conquest and hatred throughout history. To fear the war as an absolute exception to humanity is to ignore its reality, to forget that it can be repeated and most likely will. The likelihood of the war’s repetition increases as we dehumanize its practitioners into figures of pure monstrousness, because we forget that the Nazis were people too, and as such we share their violent potential.

I think that’s why I was so refreshed by Inglourious Basterds. Daniel Mendelson’s review at Newsweek put the point very clearly when he said that Tarantino has turned Jews into Nazis. His mistake was that he considered this a negative point about the film. Inglourious Basterds explores the drives that make all people violent. Leil Leibowitz in Tablet talks about the Manichean worldview of good and evil that makes the Basterds the team you root for, while they are equally violent as the Nazis. But the trend among reviewers seems to be that while everyone remembers the massacre and fire at the cinema that destroys the German High Command, no one thinks of the girl who set that fire, Shosanna.

Mélanie Laurent’s Shosanna barely escaped the murder of her family by SS Colonel Hans Landa at the start of the film, and when circumstances lead her, years later, to be the owner of the theatre where the entire High Command will gather for the premiere of Goebbels' masterpiece, she takes the initiative on her own. She and her lover, Marcel the projectionist and the only black person in the film, formulate their own assassination plot alone. They never intend to survive the massacre themselves, and Shosanna herself meets a pathetic end.

The soldier/actor Fredrich Zoller (in my opinion, an even more disturbing sociopath than Landa, because when he acts innocent, you believe him) she finally guns down in her projection booth. And in an act of mercy, she leans down to comfort him as he lies dying on her floor, but he pulls a gun and blows massive holes in her abdomen as his last act. She doesn’t even get to see the footage she’s recorded and spliced into the propaganda film where she gloats over the High Command as the Jew who murdered them. However much we admire mercy, the merciful will always be taken advantage of and crushed by those who feel no pity.

As a final point, one thing I’ve noticed in discussions of the film from reviews and interviews is that many people don’t know why Tarantino misspelled Inglorious Bastards in his title. But the reason is clear if you can watch the film with an eye for detail that Tarantino himself has: visible for less than a moment, scrawled on the butt of Brad Pitt’s rifle in the central scene of act two, is the name of their unit: INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS.

The semi-literate Lt Aldo Raine misspelled the name of his own outfit. The wood being too tough to carve curves, he wrote the letters with jagged straight lines. The ‘s’ that ends both words is written just as is the logo for the SS, jagged lines that resemble lightning bolts. The message is clear, if distasteful to people who expect violence to be conquered with peace. We may admire people who refuse to bloody their hands in the face of their own death. We may admire those who refuse to compromise their peaceful morality and hide rather than fight. But those people are dead.

Christof Waltz as Landa makes a chilling speech at the beginning of Inglourious Basterds, talking with a farmer sheltering Shosanna’s family at his house about the image of the Jew as rat. He admires was he sees as the rat-like qualities of Jews, the ability to hide and cower their way through the hostility of their enemies. But this strategy always fails eventually, because someone will always get absolutely sick of a rat and call the exterminator.

Aldo Raine and Shosanna refuse to live under the floorboards any longer. They become just as brutal as their enemies, but when your enemy is as powerful as the Nazi state, the first to compromise with mercy or pity is the first to die. The Nazis weren’t defeated by the Jews, Roma, and gays who died in the gas chambers and killing fields. They were defeated by violent resistance movements, and the brutal Russian and American armies. It’s hard to admit that sometimes survival is a matter of your own violence and mercilessness, but truth hurts.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Summarizing Proust in Fifteen Seconds

I should apologize again for not updating until so long after I went Jacques Derrida on Meghan McCain’s twitter account. What “going Jacques Derrida” means is that I took a few phrases and elaborated huge conceptual systems beginning from those phrases as basic principles. In this case, I took her having to overcompensate the enthusiastic statements she made about her friendships with gay men and her enjoyment of a Levi’s Jeans ad campaign featuring Walt Whitman’s poetry, and spun together an entire ideology of patriotism centred on civil rights. You can do this with any twitter account if you think hard enough.
And last weekend, I finished Proust, and have been thinking over the past few days of how I can summarize my views of the work in fifteen seconds. I think what most stands out for me is how In Search of Lost Time sidestepped all my expectations. I had read praise of the madeleine sequence a long time ago, and was frankly underwhelmed. However, this did lead me to understand that most people never make it through the first book, because all the stereotypical Proust scenes take place in the first hundred pages of Swann’s Way.

The sections that I found frustrating were not so because of the more typical reasons of the prose being reduced to an onerous slog. The narrator was simply such a repulsive character during these sections that I spent the entire time yelling at him to get over himself. The section of The Guermantes Way when the narrator enters high society for the first time was difficult because he was such a reverential worshiper of this pathetically snobby scene. Of course, in the context of the entire work, that was the point. He frets so much about getting his aristocratic manners right (he spends so much time worrying about bowing properly that it becomes hilarious) because he’s immature enough to think that these people are better than him due to their titles.

The volume that I think was the best was also the most surprising, Sodom and Gomorrah, which explored in great detail the lives of the necessarily closeted gay men and women of fin de siècle Paris. These people and their relationships are crafted with an incredible detail and an eye for paradoxical characterization. Proust creates a strange social atmosphere too, as the aristocrats are almost all gay and bisexual, but are always described as such with suggestions. There is only one, brief scene even suggestive of gay sex between men. The rest is all implications and off-page (like off-screen, but for books) action.

I plan on reading some literary critics of Proust at some point, to get a better sense of how the book was received, and its place of influence in literature. If you haven’t tried, you should take six months and read In Search of Lost Time. It’s an incredible experience. I’d recommend giving yourself some breaks, though.