On things that weren’t made to last

One of the things that I absolutely hate doing is getting new electronic devices. On the other hand there is a sense in which we are invariably forced to doing so as electronics are designed to have a limited lifespan and there is the other factor of predetermined obscolescence.

I had to get a new computer recently,well, I ‘needed’ it a year ago but was only in a position to get it recently. I was looking at specs of computers and remembering when I used to read PC magazines about 18 months ago and what were ‘hot’ features and what comes as standard these days. I found a desktop on ebay (used stuff eases my conscience) which had specifications that seemed absurd to me. 16GB ram (where the standard ‘high’ spec is 8) and a processor with 6 cores. It is a clear comparison that this machine was like an American Muscle car.

There’s a lot of talk about the latest Apple announcement. The Cult of Apple’s press conferences seem to get more attention and interest than when the Pope makes a statement on a social justice issue. Plus Bono is linked to both institutions. I was thinking about the notion of a smartwatch lately and I felt unconvinced.

The reasons are as follows: firstly, until the need has been ‘invented’, like my ‘need’ for a tablet computer that can check email anywhere at home. I currently work in an arrangement where responding to emails quickly gets me money and so my lifestyle has been oriented around the effiency of being contactable on email.

The other issue is that I already have a watch. I liked the idea of a tablet because it added to my life in a way that genuinely made things easier. It did have a cost of course, of having to charge it all the time and the one time where I actually went back to work on a weekend to find my lost computer (never again, never again).

As a man, a watch is one of those pieces of fancy bling that are socially acceptable and sanctioned without attracting too much attention. Such as wearing a chain might be considered gaudy or most jewellery in general seems gender subversive, but that’s a whole other issue. Watches have become for men signifiers of status and class, sometimes signifiers of what kind of person you are. I have to admit that one of the things I was socialised into was the cult of watch-fascination. I think it started from the fancy laser watch that Bond played by Pierce Brosnan had in Goldeneye. I’ve always wanted a laser watch and when that is invented and on a commercial market I will have a need invented for myself.

The other aspect of the ‘cult of watches’ is the durability of a watch. I love automatic watches or watches that don’t need battery replacements. I’m attracted to the longevity of watches and in an age where everything is supposedly replaceable and designed to break, there’s the notion that getting something that can last is a statement against it.

The idea of a watch that everyone else might recognise and have is contrary to the signifiers of watches as status-symbols. The iPhone has ceased to be a status signifier insofar as most everybody has one. Indeed it is true that watches can be prohibitively expensive signifiers and hardly the sort of thing that expresses a revolutionary temperament.

I do like that my watch has been repaired a few times over the years. I do like that I can keep my watch if it is repaired and its functionality remains. I would really wish that we could own things that we could repair easily and upgrade with ease. Of course, that seemingly doesn’t make money for these brand leaders nor is it in their interests to make something that lasts.

I remember hearing somewhere (probably from a comedian) that ‘it’s possible to make a toaster that lasts 20 years but nobody will make it’ because of the sudden loss of a market once everyone has it. There seems to me this fundamental tension, of having things that have amazing utility but in order to live in that economic zeitgeist, we must support the production chain of its production by buying it. I would wish there was an alternative to having to re-buy things every 3 years. I am bemoaning of a situation that I am very much contributing to and consciously so. I have so much electronic waste.

Schliesser on the Use of Earlymoderntexts.org

Originally posted on The Mod Squad:

Eric Schliesser has some remarks about the role of Jonathan Bennett’s translations at Earlymoderntexts.org in scholarship:

[...]

First, all translation is an interpretation. Translating complex philosophical texts is much, much harder than figuring out ‘gavagai.’ This is so, even if you have written the text yourself and are fluent in both languages. You should try translating some time; even if you are not a meaning holist, you’ll discover that a lot of philosophical jargon is not stable and uniform across cultural and temporal contexts. (Surprisingly enough, this is even  true of works in the history of physics.) So, leaving aside honest mistakes, all translations involve non-trivial judgments and trade-offs with a complex interplay among style, content, jargon, sentence structure, and even argumentative structure (this list is not exhaustive).

In earlymoderntexts.org, Jonathan Bennett, who is one of the greatest historians of philosophy of his generation and who should be praised for…

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Philosopher-Celebrity Lookalikes

Originally posted on Daily Nous:

Brian Talbot (Washington University in St. Louis) has been pairing up well-known philosophers with the celebrities who look like them. He kindly agreed to let me share the idea with you. Here’s my favorite so far:

HumeLovitz

That’s David Hume and Jon Lovitz.

This match, owed to Julia Staffel, is also quite good:

Descartes Sambora

Descartes and Richie Sambora, of course.

Your additions welcome in the comments, but let’s try to not insult any living philosophers.

UPDATE: It turns out that it may be rather difficult, and perhaps impossible, for some people to add images in the comments as the site is currently configured. So if you mention the links to the images in the comments, I will add them to this post below the fold.

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In praise of John Coltrane

For the past 6 months I’ve been trying to organise my music listening through some kind of ordered fashion. Sometimes I explore things through genres or sometimes I explore the complete corpus of a musician or composer’s work. This often requires said musician to be dead usually, and the hope that no new works or recordings are found.

 

Early on in the year I began to listen to the early Jazz musicians. At points Jelly Roll Morton is indistinguishable to Ragtime, not dissimilar to how the likes of the Rolling Stones were very much in the feet of Rhythm and Blues (as opposed to Rock), or Black Sabbath’s Black Sabbath could easily be seen as a Blues song.

 

I recently discovered John Coltrane and reading bits about him and I thought I would listen to contemporaries. Coltrane’s work has often been associated with Bebop or hard bop. I decided to check out the wikipedia page and find who were his contemporaries. I listened to the likes of Al Haig, Lee Konitz and Walter Davis Jnr and the only similarity they have to the eminence of Coltrane is that they happened to live at the same time as he.

 

Are they stylistically similar? There is an extent to which they are. But Al Haig and Walter Davis’s recordings are exceptionally pedestrian compared to the freedom and rule-breaking of John Coltrane’s tenor sax work.

 

Coltrane’s playing classifies as genius. I can hear how the saxophonist simultaneously invents new forms of expression, exploring modalities and at the same time smashing the new forms of jazz tonalities that he has invented, through the dissonances and tangentially related melodies to the background harmonies.

 

Coltrane elevated the potential for Jazz to heights that the contemporaneous classical art music would wish to aspire to at the time. With the mid-century movement of neo-classicism and the more simplistic forms such as minimalism, it could hardly be said that some classical music aimed to be daring or avant garde. Coltrane stands as the example, to me, of an eminent form of expression that a critical perspective on culture should acknowledge. If Adorno followed his own principled objections to mass culture consistently I would have thought that he was correct about the blandness of much of Jazz — except when the bright stars such as Coltrane appear.

 

Coltrane moves beyond the standard boredom of chord progressions and the formulaic character of Jazz that makes everything so samey. The experimental nature of using modes and improvising in what appears to be atonal is evocative of Schoenberg. But I have been insisted upon by many commentators that Coltrane’s style emerged independently from any influence from the second Viennese school.

 

In the hopelessness of Adorno’s cultural picture of the world, I would contend that Coltrane, and figures like him, provide cultural, and moral hope.

 

Watching La Boheme

This weekend I had the lucky opportunity to see La Boheme, of HeadFirst Productions. I saw the production at LOST Theatre in South London and was quite impressed. The composer was one Kelvin Lim and the Opera was Directed by Sophie GIlpin and designed by Jason Southgate.

 

The Opera was led by 4 musicians. At first I was concerned at how thin the textures might be musically given the acoustics. On the other hand it sort of reminded me of how this presented a very authentic and historically resonant challenge as a performer. At times the singers matched the fortes and fortissimos and the less said about a high latency digital piano against an acoustic one the better! The instrumentation was daring and scoring worked sufficiently well.

 

I was impressed at the power of the characters. Although I do not find the story of La Boheme as convincing as a tragedy and love story, the farcical nature of parts of it were excellently carried by the ensemble. I could tangibly grasp the 19th century cultural Italian humour of it and in some ways, even if I may critique or challenge it, I must say it does very much chime in with the blokey bravado and the men of our age and, perhaps many of us know a Musetta  in our own lives.

 

I was taken by the technical prowess of Mimi’s vibrato, which definitely moved the audience. Basses were very powerful too. I couldn’t help but consider this production more of an etude or technical study, of how to overcome space and time. In this regard of space, they succeeded in making a very small musical ensemble fill the acoustics of the physical space, I think that the doubling (in terms of scoring) role of the Clarinet worked spectacularly. The use of an Eb (sopranino) clarinet was masterful.

 

In trying to bridge a gap of time, however, between 19th Century Italy and today? I think the verdict of the audience was that of a success. In most of the press releases about this production, the ending is already given away: Mimi’s death is not of TB but of a drug related incident. As the story reaches its end, it begins to seem very dark and less like the 19th Century but more the malaise of our present day. I was not sure of the use of modern substance abuse as a supplanting theme to the 19th Century artist-hero archetypes that La Boheme explores, in doing so it tells a different but perhaps more important story. Furthermore, I was kind of thrown off a bit at the use of actual cigarettes on the stage! I initially thought they were vaping ones but there were actual roll ups! Not a good time to be given an inhaler for the first time this week I must say.

 

In praise of BoJack Horseman

In a recent post I wrote about Nostalgia television. I recently discovered a bit of advertising about a Netflix-only tv show called BoJack Horseman, which rings quite poignantly to what I wrote. Bojack Horseman is a show about a fictional television show in the 1990s which had the status of a long running and popular show, yet its stars had careers of differing success afterwards, and the director (spoiler ahead) suffered a career death after his sexuality was discovered and professional associations with him became toxic.

 

The protagonist, BoJack Horseman (whom I have a passing physical resemblance to), is a character who relives his life through continuously watching his show. There’s a certain amount of social commentary in the show, which interestingly reflects the  marketing of the show.

 

The show explores life in Hollywood as well as the very trend-setting nature of trying to find the next best thing. At one point in the season, the ‘D’ letter in the Hollywood sign is stolen and henceforth is referred to as Hollywoo. Likewise we see certain ridiculous trends mentioned and discussed and eventually become part of the furniture of life in LA.

 

The show was advertised heavily on Netflix (which I’m using to watch a lot of Highlander, much like Bojack watches his own ‘Horsin around’), and I am very impressed at how the whole season was released at once. I watched it in about 4-5 days and I quite like the model of releasing television (is it called television if I saw it mostly on my computer and tablet?) shows. It is kind of like the zeitgeist that Bojack Horseman captures as a show.

 

In one episode the ghostwriter character’s biography project is compared to a ‘journalist’ writing an article for Buzzfeed, and Buzzfeed is thoroughly trashed. There was much comparison between the 1990s and 2010s implicit in the show, and I love how television shows try to have their finger on the button of what it is to be in the 2010s.

 

When I was watching BoJack in between episodes of Highlander, I thought to myself, Bojack Horseman is a character reminiscent of his past career, the common phrase of the show is an onlooker saying ‘weren’t you on that show Horsin’ around??’, which often leads to a one night stand or confrontation, or both! In an age obsessed with both disposable trends and celebrities we are bound to leave characters as scarred as Bojack around.

 

Although perhaps unfair to say he is anything like BoJack. When I watch those 1990s episodes of Highlander I think of how some of the zeitgeist is captured of that time. In one episode an author is looking for an actor for an 18th century highland Scotsman, to which, Duncan Mcleod replies: why don’t you try Mel Gibson? It took me a moment to realise why that was funny as it was around 1995 when the film Braveheart came out.

 

I do sometimes wonder, as I love the Highlander show so much, what has happened to the actors. I know that Adrian Paul has had a lot of love from fans since the show ended and has continued to be known as Duncan McLeod from Highlander, even when the Highlander Francise did not have such a positive enduring reputation. One of the consequences of having nostalgia TV is that actors can be so heavily defined by their past work that their appearance has a certain kind of aura (in the Benjamin sense) as we cherish more of our memnories of that past show. A similar example of such fame comes from Matt LeBlanc’s character in Episodes, who plays a version of himself after his success as ‘Joey from Friends’.

 

Bojack is a character haunted by his success and as the show progresses, displays a sense of depth and redemption that the celebrity culture that made and destroyed him would not allow him to have on their terms. I loved the honesty of the show as well as the confrontation of his own demons. Here’s to you Bojack, you fictional anthropomorphic horse.

 

Reading: Peter Adamson’s ‘History of Philosophy (without any gaps)’

From time to time I have separate interests which converge. I remember when I was studying ancient history one of the key texts was Aristotle (although textually speaking, it probably wasn’t actually him but a student), and at the same time I was learning in another context about Aristotle’s Hylemorphism. Although from the same character it wasn’t so easy to put them together except they were attributable to the same person.

 

I’m having a similar moment recently. I’m going through Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and I’m on the andalusian period. I’ve also been listening to Peter Adamson’s podcast on the History of Philosophy (without any gaps). Both narratives give a similar story: the western story that the ‘Greeks and Romans were great, but then we went backwards until the Renaissance’ is simply false at best and cultural erasure at its worst.

 

When you read about the history of early Christianity, one finds the presence of vibrant African Christian communities in Christendom taking part in church-dividing disputes over theology. The so-called Dark Ages had a great cultural presence of Jewish and Arab thinkers, as well as a cross-fertilisation of Hellenic culture into what became modern Europe.

 

There’s a certain convenience to preserving the ‘dark age’ narrative: European history seems more…European. Early Christianity has the North African Augustine; Late Antiquity had the emergence of Islam which had a definite impact on European countries, especially Iberia (modern Portugal and Spain).

 

I am so utterly refreshed when I read Gibbon. I know that there has been a lot of scrutiny to the accuracy and sources of his work since the 18th Century but I am impressed of how worldly he was during the time. So worldly in fact, that we today have much to rediscover about the history of what we now call Europe, North Africa, Central and East Asia.

 

Similarly, having a good understanding of the history of philosophy will invariably affect the breadth of topics of contemporary philosophy and the histories we teach, and teach badly. I hate for example how mistaken it is to consider the Vienna Circle as Logical Positivists, and then when asked to define Logical Positivism, we turn to AJ Ayer. I also find it deeply uninformative to think of a history of philosophy so plotted that it starts with Plato’s Apology, then goes to Aristotle’s Eudaimonian Ethics and then jumps to Descartes on Epistemology.

 

It is true that historically, the philosophers of history have had a poor education in the history of philosophy they knew of. There’s a certain resonance of how Kant was so obsessively interested in the philosophy of his immediate geographical and historical contemporaries (ignoring for not the influence of Hume) that it reads as dry, technical and almost irrelevant…sort of like contemporary journals in philosophy?

 

Of course, there were historical philosophers who eventually became better and more worldly not only about their philosophical history, but also their cultural world. Schopenhauer and Nietzsche are arch examples of this!

 

Adamson’s narrative of philosophy shows me how important the impact of Christianity was, and is on philosophy today. Discussions on topics like mereology or haecceity and universals exist mostly because of religious oriented discussions on Christian theology. Adamson’s podcast also shows the inextricably close cousins of Arab, Islamic and Jewish philosophy and how they fed into the Medieval period and how they are part of the heritage of what became the European and Anglo-American tradition of philosophy. Re-viewing our history also allows us to re-view our self perceptions culturally and intellectually speaking.