Monday, March 21, 2011

We’re All Different, But We Can All Be Understood

Errol Morris had an intriguing series of essays published this week at the New York Times. They are entitled “Incommensurability,” and are an exploration into a philosophical idea about the social nature of science and knowledge. It turns out that Morris took a graduate seminar in philosophy from Thomas Kuhn, a writer from whom I’ve stolen some very good ideas. The climax of this relationship, from Morris’ perspective, was when Kuhn threw an ashtray at his head. The reason for this assault was Morris needling Kuhn about a problem regarding incommensurability.

Kuhn was a scientist and a historian of science more than a philosopher, but the ideas he had to formulate to make sense of his interpretations of science’s history were deeply philosophical. Key to Kuhn’s own understanding of the history of science, and the focus of Morris’ essay, was the concept of incommensurability. Science was not a progress toward better and better knowledge of the world, as traditional ways of writing its history would have it. The history of science actually consisted of a variety of models, ways of understanding the world and articulating problems that are largely unrelated to each other.

Revolutionary periods in science were the time when new models were created and become prominent enough to challenge the old models. This usually happened when some problem that the old model couldn’t make sense of become too noticeable to ignore. Those practicing one model understood the world in a totally different way than those practicing another model. The terms of one model only make sense within that model; to translate terms from one model to another would remove all the distinctive characteristics from the translated model. This is what it means to be incommensurable.

Morris explains that he confronted Kuhn with a problem of incommensurability: If two broadly defined ways of seeing the world were truly incommensurable, which Kuhn assured him they were, then a historian of science in the mid 20th century could never truly understand the scientific worldview of the medieval Europeans or ancient Greeks. The history of science itself should be impossible. And the ashtray flew.

Morris goes through several intriguing examples from history and philosophy and the history of philosophy to illustrate his points about the problem of the incommensurability concept. They are quite fascinating, but they all add up to the same point: If different models of understanding the world are genuinely incommensurable, then holders of different models shouldn’t be able to understand each other at all. Yet the conflicts among models of understanding the world seem to be motivated precisely because their opponents understand the new model. Read the articles and think about it.

Are you finished? Good.

I first heard of Errol Morris when I saw his documentary about the career of Robert McNamara, The Fog of War. I thought it was a brilliant exploration of how a sharp, intelligent, and empathetic person found himself becoming the architect of one of the most terrifying mistakes the American government ever made: its invasion of Vietnam. As I started hearing more about Morris’ history, I was less impressed.

When his filmmaking career began, Morris was friends with Werner Herzog, and would always talk to Herzog about this idea he had for a documentary about pet cemetaries and the people who use their services. But he would always come up with excuses as to why the film could never get off the ground. Finally Herzog said that if Morris ever actually got his film made, Herzog would eat the very boots that he was wearing at the time of the challenge. Morris made Gates of Heaven, and at its festival premiere, Herzog ate the boiled shoes from the challenge. The result was another short documentary: the hilarious Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. But it took a shoe eating challenge from Germany’s greatest living director to get it off the ground. I discovered on the commentary for Herzog’s Stroszek that this film was generated when Herzog went to rural Wisconsin to help make a documentary about Morris’ early life. But Morris never showed up, so Herzog wandered around small-town Wisconsin himself, coming up with ideas for the film that eventually became Stroszek. A wonderful result, but borne of Morris’ scatterbrained laziness.

Perhaps despite of these habits of his personality, Morris has written a fine series of articles that work a general audience through complex philosophical problems. The project suffers, I think, from the prominence that having an ashtray whipped at his head plays in his memories of Kuhn. That confrontation colours his entire view of Kuhn: With every interaction they had about what incommensurability meant, Morris thought Kuhn's anger was a sign that Morris was getting to the older man, forcing him to deal with something he didn't want to admit. Having won the staring contest, Morris presumes his suspicions were right, and doesn't think about the miscommunication he and Kuhn could have had from the beginning. I don't blame him for being affected by nearly being knocked out with an ashtray, but there is more nuance to Kuhn's (or at least Kuhn-inspired) thinking than Morris suggests.

It doesn’t require a purely objective perspective, a god’s eye view, or a view from nowhere to understand a way of making sense of the world that is alien to your own. All you need are skills of observation and disciplined, careful imagination. I think Morris makes a mistake in calling incommensurability the absolute separateness of some way of understanding from another, that someone who thinks according to paradigm A couldn't possibly understand anything of paradigm B. If this were true, there was no way for anyone to do any history of science at all: every view that differed from our own would be dismissed as nonsense. But one can think about one's own premises of thinking, and do so for any paradigm of thinking you care to investigate. In understanding how a paradigm of thought arises and evolves, one understands that paradigm.

Incommensurability is a matter of practical work, not pure understanding. A phlogiston chemist can't test for oxygen, because the structure of phlogiston chemistry doesn't include oxygen, or much of the periodic table. That phlogiston chemist could learn the basic concepts of a periodic table chemist, just as the periodic table chemist could learn how phlogiston theories work. But you couldn't do chemistry experiments using both theories at the same time. They can be understood, from a perspective of self-reflexivity, reflexive criticism. But when it comes to the work, you have to choose one or the other.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Barack Obama Is a Pathetic Wretch

I’ve been willing to forgive Barack Obama for a lot in the past two years. But his abandonment of Libyan rebels is something I can’t let go.

There are definitely positive aspects to his administration. He has signed law improving income equity among genders, allowed homosexuals to join the army and die for their country in useless wars, and made their money back from the auto industry bailouts, giving the anemic manufacturing sector of his country another chance to recover. That they will likely fail is the fault of manufacturing business leaders who seek better profits from more exploitive working conditions in Asia. The health care reform that he fought for, while compromised, is a genuine improvement on the almost entirely private and piratical system the United States had until 2010. His candidacy, with its rhetoric and imagery of a generational shift in the tenor of American politics, inspired so many people around the world with its romanticized vision of America that he won the Nobel Prize. For the strength of that inspiration alone, he deserved it.

But aside from his rhetoric, he has been utterly tepid. The health care reform plan will likely be revoked by conservative court action, and validated by conservative legislatures. The anger that the ideologues of the Tea Party rode to the House of Representatives began with public outrage over health care reform. If Obama had advocated strongly for his health care program with the same inspirational power and ethical idealism that he summoned in the campaign, he could have stopped this movement in its tracks. All he needed was an information program that made sure Medicare reform (which first provoked the backlash’s first rage among the elderly) was a streamlining, and not a cut. Instead, he held back, and let the conservative movement take control of the national agenda.

When the Green Revolution failed in Tehran, I considered it a tragedy, but there was nothing Obama could really do to help them. Military action in Iran would have required a force as powerful as that which invaded Iraq, an invasion which left the American military limping out. Libya is a different case. All the rebels needed was weapons and a no-fly zone to prevent Libyan planes from taking off from their airbases. And that no-fly zone could have been enforced with sea power! One or two destroyers from the American navy, patrolling off the Libyan coast, could shell every Gaddafi-controlled air force base into dust. A steady stream of weapons could have been smuggled to the rebels with the help of the Egyptian army (who had just helped overthrow their own dictator, and would be glad to see the Gaddafi family out of their backyard). Even the Canadian military could probably carry out an operation like this – actually, why don’t we? Instead, the rebels are bombed into submission, and outgunned by government ground forces. The Libyan army will kill tens of thousands of people, if not hundreds of thousands, in its inevitable destruction of Benghazi.

Obama has sat on his hands, afraid of offending the sensibilities of anyone (if they even exist) who would be opposed to American action to overthrow a dictator. Perhaps he is afraid of sounding like George W Bush, endorsing American military action in Arab lands in the name of freedom. It’s the same reason that Bill Clinton refused to sanction military force against Bagosora in Rwanda in 1994: having been burned in peacekeeping in Somalia, Clinton was unwilling to commit another military action in an obscure African country. Having been steadily burned in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama will not commit to yet another military action in a Muslim country. This true believer in democracy will let thousands die at the hands of a dictator, when they are crying out for help to overthrow that tyrant.

I hope that he’s re-elected president for a second term, if only because his most likely Republican competitors would sell off every publicly held asset in the country for the benefit of big business interests. Conservative ideology in the United States today is based on the rollback of the last hundred years to the era of robber baron capitalism, reducing the country to utter poverty. He needs to stay in power at least to provide a bulwark against the free market über alles ideology that will transform the United States into an oligarchy.

As an alleged democrat, Barack Obama is worthy only of my contempt. The ‘Hope’ poster is finally coming down.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Wake Diary: Poems Made of Tone and Images

The problem with novels is that the vast majority of readers expect them to have plots. That is, they want a clearly identified protagonist or protagonists facing a concretely described problem that they slowly investigate, act to solve, and then manage the aftermath. This is the standard rising-climax-falling structure of a plot that people are taught in high school literature studies. I prefer novels that are more narrative than plot, because plots have clear beginning and endpoints. The characters exist in the service of the plot, rather than serving as points of interest themselves. I read and I write stories that don’t have plots, as much as they have explorations, narratives, collisions of people.

Then I came to face Finnegans Wake, which doesn’t even really have characters. Looking for a narrative in this book is an academic cottage industry, as is looking for a clearly defined cast of characters. But I think there’s another way of reading this book, which actually fits its style better than an attempt to find (or interpret into it) clear characters and narratives. It’s a poem, constructed from emotionally evocative language, its rhythms, allusions, and allegories. There are recurring motifs, some of which receive clear definition in one part of the book so they can be better recognized in the rest of the work. HCE, Anna Livia, and Shem the Penman are some of these motifs. But the writing is meant to affect a reader the way a tone poem, or a piece of music does.

If anything, I suppose the entire thrust of James Joyce’s writing was a series of experiments that slowly jettisoned reliance on plot, then narrative, then even character. The stories of Dubliners were intricately constructed plots, situations whose narrative arcs created detailed situations that climaxed in a character defining epiphany. Portrait of the Artist eschewed the careful construction of plot for a series of five moments that exemplified the transformation of a character as he grew from a dependent child to an independent adult. Ulysses left narrative behind for a series of events contingently connected through the characters that wandered among them. Wake abandons even the constancy of characters. I’m not sure what to call whatever remains.

But I’ve had some profoundly strange ideas about how the Wake’s techniques influenced other artworks.

I found a very intersting interpretation of the Star Wars prequels a couple of months ago that reads them in the same way. It actually fits with some of what I know about their production, and how George Lucas envisioned particular scenes. If you watch Red Letter Media’s detailed reviews of the prequels, one of the critiques of Lucas’ narratives is that he includes specific images that mirror or parallel images from the original trilogy, but that these images lack their emotional impact when they appear without the investment of the individual characters.

When Leia sees Boba Fett’s ship taking off from the dock at Cloud City, she’s emotionally devastated, because the man she loves may have disappeared forever. When Padme watches Count Dooku’s ship take off from the dock of his mountain base, she doesn’t have the same emotional investment in the moment. Lucas created parallel images, but didn’t realize that the emotional connection of audience to story comes from the narrative itself, not the image alone.

That article above suggests that Lucas had always envisioned the story of the prequels told through images alone, not through narrative, and that he had to create his overcomplicated, emotionally cold narrative to get the proper images into the films. In other words, Lucas was stuck, because of the economics of his own film company, making a sci-fi blockbuster, when he really wanted to make a new La Jetée, on an enormous scale.

La Jetée was a silent French film whose narrative would form the skeleton of Twelve Monkeys. But its technique was to tell a story entirely through images that created emotional tones, crafted using motifs that allowed viewers to track the triggers of these emotions, and the relationships between those triggers. It was a film told with the same techniques of Finnegans Wake.

Monday, March 7, 2011

St John’s Diary: Sad to See the Old Girl Go

My friend Kyle wrote a piece for the Osgoode Law School newspaper Obiter Dicta last week, talking about the benefits of returning to practice law in St John’s. It was an entertaining piece, and while I didn’t (nor have I ever) respected the bad jokes Kyle threw in his article, I do respect his position. He always states it well, and there’s a particular realism to his patriotism that I think is at the centre of why I can tolerate it.

I find Newfoundland patriotism slightly distasteful and a little deluded. Visiting a couple of weeks ago, my mother joked about a popular documentary that examined what an economic powerhouse Newfoundland could have been if we had maintained national independence in the 1930s. The contrast case was an everlasting boom that would never run into a money problem ever again: Iceland. This is the kind of delusion that annoys me about contemporary Newfoundland patriotism.

But Kyle’s piece centred on aspects of life in St John’s that don’t have the outsized ambition that some of the more naive patriots in the old country have displayed. The lifestyle is relaxed; the people are friendly; the rent is cheap; in the particular case of lawyers, law firms compete to attract students, instead of more frequently the other way around. A lawyer working in St John’s can be more of a community practitioner, instead of a faceless corporate shill. I know most people in law school actually want to be corporate shills. But Kyle is that most rare of law students: he’s actually a very nice person.

This is actually a more personal post on what I found when I returned to St John’s this time. For the first time, it was not because of a special event. It wasn’t Xmas, which I spent in Hamilton for the first time this year. When I went to St John’s this summer, it was for my friends’ wedding, which dominated my time there. This was just midterm break and a relatively cheap direct flight from Toronto. I would have to make my own fun.

I actually found a city that was starting to become distasteful. Ugly box stores were dominating the architecture of the old-growth suburb where I grew up. A very sketchily arranged Burger King was slated to be built within twenty feet of my mother’s condominium complex, ruining the atmosphere with its terrible smell and constant traffic. Hava Java, the legendary coffeeshop that was the centrepiece of the city’s hipster, art, and music communities, was leaving its classic location, forced out by a new building owner who wanted to install office space in the building. He had already forced St John’s’ only gay bar to close the previous Xmas. Some of my friends were doing well, and some of them were stuck in ruts. I hated to see it all.

So I returned to Hamilton, a cheap Ontario steeltown with a bad reputation and an endemic recession, feeling optimistic about where I lived, and much more hopeful for my future outside St John’s than I am for the city itself. My friend Elsa made this movie about it a little while ago, and it reminds me of a city that I’m not sure ever existed.