The wrong side of History (and some parallels)

At Noumenal Realm some of us often have a conversation that goes to the effect of: when history judges us individually and as a period, I wonder how we will be judged. Perhaps we will be on the wrong side of history about certain issues. There were some people who thought that 100 years ago, a war would be the best thing for the morale of a general public. Michael thinks that being a meat and fish-eater (particularly of Cod) will make him seem abhorrent in the future as these commodities (that’s how we see them today) are so scarce yet deeply affect biodiversity and wider sustainability concerns.

I woke up to find two stories that I thought were notable. The Sochi mayor (city of the upcoming Winter Olympics and Paralympics) claimed that there were ‘no gays’ in Sochi. This parallels to me the denial of the existence of disabled people in Russia late in the 20th Century. Isn’t such a denial both ridiculous and ignorant? Yet our time and during the cold war, it was ideologically motivated to say whether being non-heterosexual (‘gay’ is such a limiting catch-all term) is a choice.

I see on the BBC front page that there is a discussion of a counter-campaign from an ‘ex-gay’ group that imitates Stonewall’s advertising. This is our zeitgeist.

Going back to Sochi, I find it interesting how there is going to be a Paralympian series of games, from the same country that denied the existence of disabled people. There’s very much a parrallel here, by virtue of the fact that a politician would use the same rhetoric of denial of existence to a group of people we now accept – well, that’s not to say its unproblematic to live with disabilities with regards to social or economic and political discrimination (it certainly isn’t unproblematic).

More parrallels: George Takei, of Star Trek fame, has an influential Facebook page. One of the really interesting things he points out (excepting for the really naff visual puns he puts up) is that there’s a parrallel between the discourse between same-sex partnerships and inter (intra?)-racial marriage in the Jim Crow era. Much of the ‘junk science’ of race studies in the 19th and 20th Centuries might be said to be ideologically motivated, another example of how our historical perspective shows a bit more insight with hindsight. Yet inter-racial marriages (I hate that term) is hardly now an issue of legislation and, although there may be social sanctions on the basis of what communities we belong to (and that’s very relative), it’s hardly considered an issue of law. What difference is it does it make between where one is born (or grandparents, parents etc), versus what their status of hormonal development was during the embryonic stage? Pointing out such parallels make the distinctions we make in law seem based less on informed prejudice but social and ideological presumptions.

(A post by Sinistre)

Reading Marvel’s ‘Civil War’ and ‘AvX’, or “The counterpoint of Marvel Characters”

Lately we at Noumenal Realm have gotten very much into comics and graphic novels. Although we mostly read the Marvel stuff, there are a few indies and other things that we pick up on from time to time. I would like to discuss an issue that has been on my mind for a while. That is the interesting personal perspectives of certain iconic Marvel Characters in recent years. I will talk about Captain America vs. Iron Man and then briefly the more recent Cyclops.

 

Steve Rogers vs. Tony Stark: allies and opponents

 

In the Marvel Civil War storyline, there was a discussion about registering superheroes. The heroes divided into a pro-registration and anti-registration camp. For me this was a really politically salient narrative, in a decade where the discussion on curbing freedoms in the name of safety was a hot topic in the light of national security issues in the US and Europe, those Marvel writing bods touched on a nerve that divided the Avengers, and many other heroes in the 616 continuity.

 

Steve Rogers was anti-registration. People work from their own individual goodness to get involved with heroism, and it is not up to the state to both mandate and control this. Rogers also had a concern that registration meant that many heroes who kept anonymous, such as Spider-Man, couldn’t function as they remain anonymous. Heroes such as Spider-Man keep anonymity as a way of protecting those he loved, of course that never seemed to work for him in actuality.

 

Tony Stark was pro-registration. The government mandating superheroes would allow for a more centralised and organised distribution of the United States and their defence needs, if they were registered. There would also be a way of checking on heroes, think of the old phrase: “who watches the watchmen?”. By having a government approval, superheroes will have someone to be accountable to.

 

This difference in ideologies represents the truly beautiful and complex relationship that Stark and Rogers has. As people they are different, as political orientations go they are also different, but they also often work together for the same goals. The civil war storyline represents how fragmentation can happen from differing views, but perhaps how arguing out these differences is a necessary part of governance. For a comic saga that involved lots of ‘fights’, I very much enjoyed the political undertones of the civil war.

 

Cyclops and ‘Pax Utopia’

 

In the later ‘Avengers v X Men’ storyline of last year, Captain America and Iron Man had their own little revelations betraying a glimpse into their inner character. Iron Man was so desperate to find a way to understand and defeat the Phoenix force, that he discovered a spiritual faith, and began to think in spiritual terms, acknowledging the powers of characters like Iron Fist. Steve Rogers also had a revelation: that changing the world only comes through consent.

 

When, through a bizarre accident, Cyclops and four other X-Men the great power of the Phoenix force, they begin to remake the earth. There are scenes of bio-engineering and terraforming arid land, where the X-men impute themselves as a saviour to the world. Cyclops also proposes that the world’s representatives in the UN must accept world peace, so says the powerful Cyclops.

 

There’s that old saying of ‘power corrupts’. The Phoenix force fed into Cyclops’ ambition of the world, but also highlighted his darker aspects, such as his constant fear of being persecuted as a mutant, and never being approved by humanity wider. Cyclops’ forced peace, or Pax Utopia, is a definite reference to the old Pax Romana, which Kant considered as a viable model for world peace. If there were a single sovereign to rule all others, there would be no cause for war. Accept the Pax or face the consequences.

 

There were moments when the Avengers thought that it might be worth accepting this vision of the world, but Steve Rogers points out that such a peace was bought too easily. Real change has to be hard, has to be consensual and has to engage with people’s real disagreements and grievances. What Cyclops did was an oversimplification to world problems. I loved the AvX storyline for this insight I had in reading it. It’s also much easier than Michael slowly reading ‘The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’, just saying.

 

Sinistre

 

Some musings on Social Media

Editorial: In place of an extended discussion this week I am going to summarise some responses which formed a group discussion between us at Noumenal Realm. This discussion was on the topic of Social Media.

Destre on Social Media

Perhaps I might speak of some of the goods of social media. I have been able to network with people professionally and carry on conversations that would otherwise have taken the spaces of seminars, lecture halls or other such private forms of correspondence. I love the capacity to debate issues abstractly through the medium of facebook messaging (although not by wall post discussions). I find a certain democratising element to the medium. Of course like any medium, it is up to people using it to practice it well.

Sinistre on practical applications

I can distinguish my level of contacts by what social networks I am on. Facebook friends are personal people I know or used to know, and a few online friends; Twitter followers are a mix of robots, people I’ve admired in journalism or entertainment or maybe even some people I’ve personally met, but for whom it might be awkward to add on a personal Facebook. For example, I have a great motivational gym class instructor who has quite funny and pithy things to say. It merits a Twitter follow but not a Facebook friendship. For me strict demarcation is neat. I also find it practical to have twitter blasting away and seeing odd little Guardian/Huffpo news/’news’ articles. I also find twitter useful to remind me when my favourite TV is on.

Antisophie on self presentation

If I wanted to greet someone affectionately in person, I would. Social media seems to emphasise the ‘being seen’ aspect of social interaction, without the actual interaction. In that sense it is artifice. We have written on this blog about Goffman and the moral nature of self-presentation, giving a very poor vision of the social-moral animal defined by constructions such as the definition of the situation. To me, media such as Facebook, local forums or even professional/specialist networks are simply about being seen or being heard, and less about things happening, actions being performed. It emphasises the worst of human nature and the populist herd mentality. The emperor has no clothes in the world of social media, and artifice is queen.

Michael on potential utilities

I have been using blogging platforms, tweeting, Facebook and specialised networks, for example: Streetlife and Project Dirt, as ways of connecting with groups and individuals of similar interest. I have found social media and the various showy things about them to promote the community garden project I have been involved with. I have unexpectedly found an odd merging of people I have personally met (through networking or personal friends) following me on the @noumenalrealm account.

I am a sucker for keeping records. I love reading reviews on Foursquare of restaurants. One particularly nice bit of advice was that the tap water costs an extortionate amount in Mr. Wu’s in London’s Chinatown. I have made a few friends of mutual interest when it comes to fitness, from the social network Fitocracy. I think that Fitocracy has had a large part in my interest in keeping active. I am as awkward with social media as I am in real life about sharing anything.

I am painfully self conscious that what one might say reflects some sociogenic aspect of them. Everything is politicised, mediated through social categories like say class. This includes one’s vernacular, the kinds of interests they have, or the things they may consider  to be apt to talk about.

I think perhaps the most disjunctive thing is that the things I tweet are violently different from the things I might talk about in everyday life. Despite having a blog where I like tweeting about music and blogging about books and intellectuals, my actual life surrounded by everything except black metal, or Modern Philosophy texts. The fact is, I hardly read that much, and my music listening is exceptionally varied beyond the things I say that I ‘like’. My last.fm (again, another interest-oriented network) shows my true guilty pleasures, the fact that I listen to a lot of non-music audio like audiobooks or podcasts, and that I like listening to music I am unfamiliar with. Social media may be a deceitful way of playing up one’s interests against how one is in the face to face social domain. When most people ask, I really actually hate talking about Kant or Adorno. Perhaps my face to face self betrays my bad faith in a manner that tweeting or Facebook updates cannot

David Hilbert on Unification

At the end of David Hilbert’s Mathematical Problems, Hilbert goes into the details for his motivations for what we may call unity of science thesis. These reasons are as poignant today in my view as they were in his own time. Motvations could be summarised thusly:

 

  • Divergences/fracturing mathematics into subdisciplines will mean specialised areas will not engage with other areas outside their specialism

  • The most important innovations are driven by simplicity, more refined tools and less complication.

 

The first thesis is a problematic of overspecialisation and genrefication of any kind of academic research. Becoming so niche that one is essentially writing for a peer group that is too specific and few. Perhaps this is inevitable in the world of industrial research and constant innovation. If we are to believe that subdisciplines and specialisation are a necessity, then we cannot understand Hilbert’s second thesis, of parsinomy. Granted, more needs to be elaborated if such a unification thesis were to work. Unification has its own problems, but there is a bonus to clarity and it is a matter of fact that many great scientific innovations are of the sort that unify and simplify seemingly irrelevant areas (Maxwell Equations or Relativity for example).

 The conclusion of Hilbert’s lecture is as follows:

The problems mentioned are merely samples of problems, yet they will suffice to show how rich, how manifold and how extensive the mathematical science of today is, and the question is urged upon us whether mathematics is doomed to the fate of those other sciences that have split up into separate branches, whose representatives scarcely understand one another and whose connection becomes ever more loose. I do not believe this nor wish it. Mathematical science is in my opinion an indivisible whole, an organism whose vitality is conditioned upon the connection of its parts. For with all the variety of mathematical knowledge, we are still clearly conscious of the similarity of the logical devices, the relationship of the ideas in mathematics as a whole and the numerous analogies in its different departments. We also notice that, the farther a mathematical theory is developed, the more harmoniously and uniformly does its construction proceed, and unsuspected relations are disclosed between hitherto separate branches of the science. So it happens that, with the extension of mathematics, its organic character is not lost but only manifests itself the more clearly.

But, we ask, with the extension of mathematical knowledge will it not finally become impossible for the single investigator to embrace all departments of this knowledge? In answer let me point out how thoroughly it is ingrained in mathematical science that every real advance goes hand in hand with the invention of sharper tools and simpler methods which at the same time assist in understanding earlier theories and cast aside older more complicated developments. It is therefore possible for the individual investigator, when he makes these sharper tools and simpler methods his own, to find his way more easily in the various branches of mathematics than is possible in any other science.

The organic unity of mathematics is inherent in the nature of this science, for mathematics is the foundation of all exact knowledge of natural phenomena. That it may completely fulfil this high mission, may the new century bring it gifted masters and many zealous and enthusiastic disciples! [David Hilbert, 1900]

 


The idea of plural narratives

Plural histories

Something that has been on my mind of late is the idea of historical/cultural narratives that rely very much on stories which are often told. There are many kinds of stories which people deem significant and which are significant which are often told or have some aspect of it disputed: the story of the HIstorical Jesus, for instance, or the discovery of the Americas. The World Wars and the rise of Nationalist Socialism are other examples of narratives often told. But of course they are not the only stories.

Lately I’ve been thinking about how emphasising some narratives may undermine others. To emphasise unitary or specific narratives can both posit or prime non-rational assumptions about such a period of history. I am reminded of the kind of person who can only talk about the little they know about a subject even if its not relevant, and who is not content with an humble ignorant silence or agnosticism.

There are narratives which are not well known, but does that mean they are forgotten? It may be said. To not know that attributed first known composer of written music scores was a woman, is not as well known as it should be, is something that if we do not know about, we may not even think about. This I may consider a form of erasure. Likewise, it is said that many of the early writers of Tin Pan Alley established their careers through the uncouth musical genre known as ‘Coon Song’. Some things are ugly in history that if we forget, let the attributed get away with what they did. To some extent there is a moral character to our remembering and our histories: we remember the great achievers and celebrate them, and we should also remember those who should be shamed. We should not forget the shamed of history, of course we can also revise and dispute who we valorise or demonise.

There are many narratives in a single epoch. Some stories are told too much and it is the repetition that people become obsessed with, instead of the story. I am tired of hearing the anecdotes about Immanuel Kant and how he knew when it was 3pm. Why not the anecdotes about the influence of his friend Joseph Green? Reading the Black Metal anthology recently explores the other scenes that emerged, including USA black metal, where it was said that Depressive Suicidal Black Metal was developed.

I guess I’m reminded of this particularly today because the infamous nature of Varg Vikernes being on the news lately. Every mention of Burzum (and that includes this piece) increases the cult of what the early 90s scene was, and the potentially overhyped nature of it reminds me of that old saying ‘if you had all the pieces of the ‘true cross’ you’d have enough wood for a forest’. What about the other scenes that emerged within the Black Metal aegis, such as in Greece.

The other day I was having a conversation with my actor friend about the idea of a theatrical version of Star Wars. My friend suggested that would be a logicially ambitious project. But I suggested that (I was also simultaneously explaining my approach to musical score-reading), one must have an interpretation of the text rather than creating a literal facsimile. The Empire Strikes Back would work in my view as a drama if we focussed on specific situations, persons and mentalities. The Battle of Hoth from the perspective of a Rebel Soldier about to die; the engineers inside the Executor Star Dreadnought as they go to Bespin; or the inner worries of Lando Calrissian in his offstage behaviour away from Solo and Organa. There are many stories to tell, and being a judge of the multiplicities is an interesting critical question. What I would say to summarise though is: there’s no single history.

Sinistre

Geriaction: Reviewing three recent action films

We at Noumenal Realm have been pining for an excuse to get together, usually this takes form with going to the cinema and then ending up at a dive pub/club or some variant of that. We’ve been looking forward to seeing the following films: Bullet to the Head (dir. Walter Hill, starring: Sly Stallone) ; The Last Stand (dir: Kim Ji-Woon, starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger), and Die Hard 5: Live Free or Die Hard (dir: John Moore, starring: Bruce Willis). After seeing these films, I think the reasonable conclusion to make is that these films are pretty dire. The following post will go into the specificities of this appraisal, as well as address cultural themes within these films.

Geriaction as a genre

There is larger recognition of a sub-genre in action films: namely that of the aging action hero. These films have come to be known as geriation (a portmanteau of geriatric and action). Following the success of films like the Expendables, action films have experienced a cinema revival in that most action films have been oriented to the ‘straight-to-DVD’ (formerly ‘straight-to-video) model.

Action films usually commonly to have starring actors who were a bit off the usual youthful appearance a little bit older. Stallone’s Rambo character was constantly drawn back into combat situations after a career as a soldier; Schwarzenegger’s John Matrix character in Commando also possesses a world-weariness in terms of his refusal to willingly go back into combat. Let’s not forget Danny Glover’s character Murtagh’s catchphrase: ‘I’m too old for this shit!’.

Geriaction is not the veneration of the slightly older action hero, its the veneration for the retirement age variety of action hero. The kind of hero whose age pushes the boundaries of what we assume persons from their mid-fifties onwards would be capable of. Part of me thinks that these films are a cynical vehicle to retain some semblance of a career for those individuals whose physicality and proximity to gun battles were the bread and butter of their acting career, another part of me thinks that this is an interesting perspective on the activity and potential of a baby boomer generation who have taken the spotlight for so long; as well as a sociological commentary on how (mostly men) are physically active later on in life.

Some cynicism

I think its fair to say some comments on gender are appropriate. It’s kind of nice that the action heroes in Bullet to the Head (Bullet), The Last Stand (TLS), or Die Hard 5 don’t follow the cliche of having a romantic dimension to their character. It almost, and I say almost, makes them look like they might not be action heroes of the misogynist and sexist variety of yesteryear. This is a bit of a stretch to argue this case though.

While the protagonists in these films are aged males, aged females are virtually invisible. The most notable women present in these films display obvious attractiveness although their not strongly within the male gaze focus. The most notable women in these films have interesting relationships with the leading actor. In Bullet, the lead female is Stallone’s daughter and a key plot element, who represents the moral compass that is non-existent in Stallone’s Bobo character, athough she does unfortunately form a ‘damsel in distress’ plot moment. The female lead in TLS is an ambitious police deputy who is very career minded and dedicated to her duties, which contrasts to one of the other (male) deputies. It is fair to say that action films in recent years have gone a bit of a way since the crassness of films like Commando or Total Recall in terms of gender. Something should be said of the presence of gender in Jason Statham’s Transporter trilogy, which supposedly tried to create an homosexual protagonist, although this is more of an apocryphal story and non-canonical.

Some remarks on male aging

In Northern nations, it is fair to say that living standards have continually improved, which has led to lots of various health related side effects. One issue is that the improvement of female health has become relevant to issues of contraceptive health, with issues such as the improved viability of pregnancies or contraceptive treatments in ages that were not as physically possible before. There is also an ongoing problem, which has little attention, of how to deal with an aging population, which in turn has implications on wider governmental and social agencies. The UK has a currently running drama-comedy, Derek, which addresses the social issues about the elderly.

Aging is a cultural issue: there has been so much emphasis on youth, where youth is a valuable quantity, that looking young has become an industry for the older. I also suspect that with improved living standards there is an issue of difficulty of how older people find their place in the world. Stallone’s character in Bullet to a large extent does not even acknowledge this issue, although Bullet and Die Hard 5 address aging in terms of parenting adult progeny. The emphasis on Die Hard 5 is McClane’s relationship with his son and trying to repair the damage that was done from being career focussed during his son’s formative years and the negative impact that has had, to some extent Bullet explore this as well to a lesser degree. Its interesting to portray adults as still children to a parent, as well as men taking to parenthood as a large part of their identity.

In TLS, Schwarzenegger’s character is a mentor. Someone who has been there and done that, and has a weariness about the consequences of living a life of action and adventure, balanced with the reality of the terror of an armed dispute and the psychology of being in that situation. As a mentor, Schwarzenegger’s character also attempts to better his charges and lead by example as a role model. In these ways films of the geriaction sort can reveal pathways of the aging male.

Trope: the ever changing villain

One characteristic of Bullet and Die Hard 5 was the ever changing villain. These films had so many double cross-betrayals from the villains that it made one not care about the plot. The plots seem to be overly complicated and underdeveloped. The identity of the ‘true’ villain in Die Hard 5 changed around 3 times at least and by the third time it was kind of obvious who the villain was at the end, with no surprise at the triple/quadruple crossing that has transpired. Bullet to the Head by contrast had a senseless double-cross. The ‘main’ villain happened to be the henchman who happens to be in the big fight (another tropey staple of action films). The main villain (spoiler) was Keegan, Jason Momoa’s character who had very little development except for a few background conversations about his history and mentality.

There was an interesting monologue at the end of the film: a key plot point of Bullet was that a convoluted conspiracy unfolded that unveiled the manipulation of government contacts to create a building contract, the final fight was at the site of one of these buildings that were to be rebuilt for some kind of gentrification building scheme. Momoa’s character points out how there is a placard celebrating the lifesaving efforts of the fire service to save people from that very building over 100 years ago. Momoa’s character points out how their nobility is ignored and nobody remembers the heroism inside the building as its history and literal foundations will be built over for some political short term social project. The senseless nature of this forgetting to Momoa is what he finds objectionable and becomes important to his moral outlook, which is an attempt at his justification for his senseless betrayal at murdering his employer at the end of the film. The problem is, this aspect of the film is under developed and these themes are only drawn out tenuously.

Trope: ‘I’m getting too old for this shit’

One of the other lazy tropes of the film, which is essential to the geriaction genre, is that the hero of the film is physically old, although they might still be pretty badass and can hold their own in the action, they still have back complaints and other such things associated with aging. When the hero gets hit, it takes them a bit of a while to get back up again, and in a sense this is realistic, in another it represents a little bit of suspending one’s imagination. Action films used to be about suspending the imagination with certain physical feats (such as Rambo’s ability with an explosive tipped arrow, or that bit in Timecop when two bullets hit each other), however the suspending of imagination comes from thinking that a sixty-something year old man is capable of stopping a convoy of criminals crossing the US-Mexico border, or John McClane’s escape from an helicopter crashing into a building.

The aspects of dealing with aging seem not to be a worry for just the old, but signifier of a wider cultural preoccupation with aging and decay for all men. As someone who reads Men’s Health and other magazines, a fair few pages are devoted to products targeting ‘anti-aging’ or ‘preventing hair loss’, and the unfortunate thing is I too buy into the whole cultural worry of aging. Another interesting feature of the geriaction film is that the protagonist cannot single handedly eliminate their main villain, but they must do so with the support of their younger charges. In Bullet, Stallone’s character nearly defeated Momoa’s character except the latter kept coming, then it was only through the help of his young sidekick that he was saved. Die Hard’s McClane and son worked as a pair in a fairly equal partnership in order to defeat their foes, McClane Jnr (played by Jai Courtney) is a physically imposing character who displays just as much, if not more ability to be the action hero to his veteran father.

Trope: The gen Y younger guy

Another aspect which is interesting about these geriaction films is the aspect of the Gen Y younger guy. The Gen Y younger guy is the ‘next generation’ or ‘potential future’ of the protagonist’s moral project. In TLS, a young deputy shows ambition to work in a busier and more dangerous police department and asks the Sheriff for his support in the former’s application. The token Gen Y younger guy in Bullet is officer Kwon (played by Sung Kang), whose youth and post-racial discourse is a large contrast to the antiquated Stallone protagonist, who is awfully prone to politically incorrect (not to mention ethnically incorrect) jibes at his Korean sidekick. Expendables 2 also exhibits the Gen Y younger guy in the sniper character. I think it is interesting how the Gen Y type character is usually second fiddle to the baby boomer protagonist. Almost as if in a commercial and a sociological sense: the younger generation is not given a chance to succeed and is often in the shadow of the baby boomer who will not step down.

Courtney’s McClane Jnr character is portrayed as someone who is not taken as seriously by his father initially, his work diminished as ‘spy shit’ has both humorous and demeaning effect, both to the efforts of a younger generation trying to make it on their own, as well as to anyone outside of that generation who made it in the 80s.

A common feature: a disposable plot

These films, it is fair to say, have exceptionally convoluted plots. It is fairly transparent that these geriaction films are marketed not because of their directors, or even the majority of their casting; but because of the leading actor who is guaranteed to bank at the box office. With the case of Bullet, this was not the case. Apparently the film did worse than ‘Stop or my mom will Shoot!’. It is an utterly cynical thing to put these films out when they display obvious low quality in terms of their storyline and are an obvious vehicle to promote star power. Mark Kermode pointed out how the censorship ratings for Die Hard were potentially manipulated to maximise their audience: create a lower rating to get as many younger people as possible, and then put in the originally more violent scenes on DVD release to maximise an audience on that front.

Political themes – guns, vigilantism, role of the state and individualism

These films had political themes, although it could have just have easily been missed in the otherwise dull plots. The acceptance of possessing arms is quite covertly accepted and taken for granted. There are varying views on the perspective of vigilantism: TLS emphasises the authority of official state agents, but on the other hand points out the importance of taking a stand against what you believe in and reporting wrongdoing. In Bullet, Stallone’s character is repeatedly told that his job as a hitman will not go without consequences from the younger sidekick. There are interesting dynamics between these films about the role of state agents and the individual. Die Hard goes strongly along the individualist line, as in most of the premises of the Die Hard films, McClane’s character is often unassisted by police or military and acts alone to save the day..

Conclusion: Why I will still watch asinine films

These films have discernable themes, tropes and so forth, however it is fair to say that one has to look fairly deeper than the shallow plot to find it. It’s utterly cynical to deride these films, in a sense it is also hypocritical as if a new Die Hard came out in a few years time, I’d probably go and watch it. It’s a cheap thrill and often production companies like Lionsgate know their targeted audiences all too well – not a great film, but I’d see the latest one when it comes out. Oh Geriaction, what’s next?

Sinistre

When the BBC disappoints, and Vice Magazine impresses me

Sometimes people speak of how alternative media such as blogs and less paper based news formats speak to the end of journalism and news media as we know it. Sometimes I wonder if the traditional media are doing it themselves.

As many of you might be aware, yesterday announced the passing of Venezuelan Leader Hugo Chavez. I found out mainly through Twitter. I was actually watching BBC news at the time, where the pressing stories in the first hour were the following stories which seem to be of public importance:

  • Manchester United going out of the Champion’s league after defeat from Real Madrid and contestable referee decision (in fairness Britain is a country that celebrates football so sports news isn’t completely unmerited)
  • Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, informally known in magazines as Wills and Kate, announce gender of their child – erm, so the BBC are quite big on deference, and its true that there is a lot of international public interest (for whatever reason) on this subject – but I would quite prefer this kind of news to be on E!
  • Justin Bieber causes outrage by being 2 hours late to performance – parents demand apology – erm – this was seriously considered headline news for television.

It is for this reason that I normally think about looking at other news networks. Al Jazeera for instance, or RT. I’m a little bit tired, annoyed even, at the level of irrelevance at news stories sometimes. I grant that there are lots of things of public importance that are pretty depressing, like the economy, and all the issues that are related to the economy. However those are of great importance to an informed democracy.

Also a good news agenda should introduce stories that we don’t normally think about. With that in mind I have lately been admiring Vice magazine and their website. In  a sense I am desperately shocked that I would ever have to admit this, but I find that the reportage and breadth of topics addressed by Vice magazine to be very enlightening – Vice magazine are often known for a degree of cynicism, having very unusual and sometimes just gross stories, however they then come up with things like ‘calling out the Thigh Gap phenomenon‘ (warning – contains objectification) or their story on the invisible minority of gay Palestinians. I’m currently part of a blog where one of my jobs is to monitor news stories and report on interesting things, I always am in favour of linking to Vice stories, but the very informal writing style, and gratuitous use of words like ‘fuck’ make me think twice about the audience I want to link this to.

I have to face it. Vice Magazine are doing a great job, I consider them a good news source in a world where the Guardian puts forward transphobic articles and ignorant commentary from people who basically say ‘I told you so!!1′ about the 2008 GFC without too much awareness of that old thing called ‘post hoc ergo procter hoc’, or when the BBC think news about Justin Bieber and a guy who dresses like Batman is proportionally important. Many Vice reports are outright crass and in fairness the publication doesn’t make a reputation for being too serious. However it says a lot when something like Vice can be cutting edge when it comes to having their ears to the ground on social trends.

Sinistre

On Writing Accessibly (thoughts from book reviewing)

At the moment I am in the process of reading two books as part of writing a review for them. I’m reviewing the anthology ‘Philosophy in Children’s Literature’ by Lexington Books, and ‘The Mythology of Evolution’ by by Zer0 Books (written by Noumenal Realm favourite blogger Chris Bateman). One of the things I usually think about when writing a book review is a thing that is the complete opposite of how I write in my blog: accessibility to your audience. One book succeeds at this consistently, while the other is problematic about this.
 
I’ve been thinking about this lately because I’ve been asked to do some freelance proofreading and editing work lately, and this varies a bit to when undergraduates ask me to look over their essays. Sometimes the comments and criticisms I have a deeply technical affairs (like ‘the meaning of is’), while others are very general and come up time and again when I do book reviews.

The cardinal rule is to know your audience and write to their level of understanding. I am a massive hypocrite when I say this because on this blog many of my posts presume that my readership has read such-and-such an essay or such-and-such an historical text. I find the freedom of moderating my own blog is that I want to talk at my level, because I spend my real life emphasising how to be accessible and how to write and speak accessibly, when what’s going on in my head presumes a background in music, or philosophy, or comic books, or whatever. I personally don’t write usually for an audience all the time. Sometimes I write to make notes of my thinking. I am however very honoured at how many people around the world have come to visit and read Noumenal Realm posts, and I’m surprised at how often my posts are translated!

Let me give two different examples of writing accessibly about a technical issue. Firstly, in reading Chris Bateman’s ‘Mythology of Evolution’, which I have yet to complete, and secondly, a book that I am currently reviewing: ‘Philosophy in Children’s Literature’ (ed. P. Costello).

Bateman disseminating science

When reading through Bateman’s Mythology, I have found that he draws from a large array of sources, from technical issues in scientific journals, to generalist perspectives on biology, to the philosophy of science and philosophy of biology! In particular, Bateman explains a thesis in the issue of levels of selection in a way that was so clear, that the philosopher who he’s citing (who also happened to be a former lecturer of mine) couldn’t explain it clearer and simpler terms than Bateman. In fairness, the philosopher in question was very keen on using a lot of logic and game theoretic notations (preserving anonymity fail).

Bateman writes as if taking his thesis as a train journey and the simplicity and accessibility of his language is sure to keep an audience on the rails. Good writing tries to put a discussion in as simple terms as possible. Of course if one is writing for a more specialist audience this is not so much an issue. But there are some instances where technically oriented writing is not desirable, such as if we are bringing together areas of specialism where the experts don’t read each other and may be fluent in one set of terminology but not others. It’s one thing to talk biology (microbiology and pathology papers are the worst when it comes to readability!), and its’ another to talk philosophy, but communicating the two for a general audience is a masochistic task of accessibility.  

Continental philosophy jargon and children’s literature – a marriage made in the 7th layer of hell

I’ve finished a book that I am trying to develop an opinion about, for a book review. My overall opinion is that many of the articles are a genuine contribution to philosophy, while others are a very poor attempt at accessible writing. I’m sure many of you may be familiar with the genre of philosophy titles like ‘Philosophy and Metallica’ or ‘Philosophy and Twilight’ that have come out from the editorial mind of William Irwin. I think that there is a potential for connecting everyday cultural artefacts with philosophy, but if you do so, one must realise that there would be a targeted audience. I’m sure that less philosophers will read ‘Philosophy and Metallica’ than say Metallica fans.

‘Philosophy in Children’s Literature’ reflects a trend of philosophical literature that addresses issues in aesthetics, as well as ethics and critical theory in relation to children’s literature. I imagine that if there was such a thing as literary criticism for children’s books, it would surely welcome this kind of thinking. The anthology made me realise how exceptionally wide the scope of thinking is for philosophy in children’s literature.

When thinking of a wide scope, there is more of an onus to write accessibly for the printed word. There are some articles which do very well at this in the book. Some articles such as Court Lewis’ The Cricket in Time’s Square examines the philosophical ideas underpinning the story and then the story. Then there are obscurantist, inaccessible and horrid-to-read articles like The Giving Tree, Women and the Great Society (Milena Radeva), and Lovingly Impolite (Lindsay Lerman) which do no favours for accessibility. Although part of this I maintain is because of the impenetrable and ugly writing styles of the philosophers whom they cite, such as Derrida and Agamben, who make philosophy sound like word games and apply puzzlingly pretentious equivocations. If you are going to reference a ‘continental’ philosopher, it would do one favours to try and re-pack what they say in accessible English.

Writing in a difficult way alienates one’s audience. Although sometimes this is seen as a purposeful thing such as the case of Nietzsche, or maybe even Schopenhauer, who force people to know their intellectual background in order to understand them. There were a few good articles in the anthology and it is good to emphasise this with the bad. The idea of philosophising about Children’s literature is very appealing. It was unfortunate for me that the piece on Frog and Toad was a bit difficult to read, because I love Frog and Toad.

The exception to accessible writing

I do believe that there is an exception to the desideratum of accessible writing, and that is when one is deep in terminology that it is impossible to explain in lay terms. Or where the intended audience is definitely not the lay-person. One thing that I’ve noticed lately are certain people who shall remain nameless who consider themselves experts about certain issues only to find that they haven’t read very much literature on an issue and suddenly find themselves that using accessible language is imprecise, irrelevant and unhelpful to the advances of how an issue is in the present state of the art. This is what I call the ‘out of Kansas amateur’.  

I think that the intricacies of 20th Century music involving very fancy methods and technical terms would be an example of something that is a challenge to explain explicitly with accessibility. The philosophy of Kant often uses a certain syntactical structure which involves long sentences, and lots of lists and details as part of a system. This systematic thinking also leads to a very dry sort of language being employed. Sometimes accessibility is over-rated. But then again in these situations, it is being written for an audience.

There are many instances where a writer has to write for their audience, but for a select number of things. The content is important enough to challenge a reader to take a journey and grow in order to be able to understand the text.

Michael (following conversations with Sinistre)

The face of the High Street

I thought I’d write something relevant to the urban spaces that many people live in. This week it was announced that two common features of many High Streets: HMV and Blockbuster, have found financial troubles and have effectively gone into administration. I reacted in two different ways when I heard these two stories. The first reaction was to HMV. I felt a bit of fondness for the brand because of its history and my own personal experience with it.

In my small archive of possessions I have inherited a vinyl collection of Chopin Nocturnes by Alfred Brendel, and one of the distinctive features of it is the name of the publisher: His Master’s Voice. At first I didn’t recognise the name, but the dog standing by a grammophone had a strange familiarity. I think it is a good sign of a brand to have such a notoriety that its identity as a brand becomes part of what makes it a cherished item. I felt it was the continuity of an old vinyl of a classic piano recording being part of a commercial product of a (then) currently existing brand. In that way I thought it was sad to see HMV go. As an aside. I’ve always been saying to myself how I wanted to visit the Curzon cinema above my nearby HMV to see an art film or live streaming opera, but I never got around to it. It seems now I won’t get the chance.

One of the things I thought were interesting has been the various conversations people have had on twitter and the bloggosphere about their fondness of the experience of buying CD albums and singles and how that experience is mainly consigned to memory for the large amount of the public. Although there are many independent retailers around, many of them occupy niche spaces that are to the effect of excluding certain kinds of music.

When I heard about Blockbuster, I was reminded of a conversation with a friend a few days earlier. The conversation went to the effect of: why hasn’t this company gone bust already? There was a distinct sense in which Blockbuster was a blight on a certain Clapham high street in the backdrop of trendy and relevant shops. The irrelevance of Blockbuster as a generalist retailer for games and even providing the service of rentals seemed to me like something that was a blight on the modern high street.

In this same week I’ve been following a few online discussions about my local area. The local MP posted in a local online site that a decision to oppose a betting shop replacing what used to be a high street bank branch has been overruled in favour of granting permission to set up a shop. One of the discussions I’ve heard a lot from my local area (particularly from my involvement with a community group, and the odd conversations I hear before gym classes/badminton social games) is how the perception of the high street is changing locally.

The perception is that many shops come and go, and this is largely due to the difficult economic conditions of today, many people attempt to make a local trading shop or place a franchise to find that within a few months it cannot sustain itself. As such there are a lot of changes to local shops on a monthly basis. The shops that stick however, reflect more of the current customer behaviours and spending interests. In my area this tends is said to be (to the annoyance of many): fried chicken shops, bookies (Betting shops) and so called Pound Shops. For any non-British readers, a pound shop is a retailer which sells items usually at low value (often £1). The success of the pound shop reflects both the way in which business need to be adaptable to their customers and market conditions but also seem to be divisive in terms of opinion

I’ve heard a lot of derision about the chicken shop; the pound shop and betting stores. Usually it is the clientele that is the butt of people’s dislike. I wonder sometimes if it is a covert form of class intolerance. I also suspect part of it is genuinely a perception of accessibility and the unfriendliness of these places to those unfamiliar with it. As someone who was a teenager in the 2000s, I am no stranger to the chicken shop, and in a sense I am neutralised to the negative opinions of them. I can also recognise that it is part of the repetoire of masculinity that enjoying a chicken shop is a key staple in socialising with my friends. I enjoy the fact that there’s somewhere to get unhealthy food after midnight when I’m coming home after a 12-16 hour day at work. Or on a friday/saturday night the presence of a takeaway is very welcome. I can appreciate that with a late opening venue also comes a lot of noise from customers. One time I was at a local chicken place and I saw that its packaging was provided by the Met Police, and it contained information about knife crime. I have to admit that was pretty grim.

I’m always sceptical about the perception of social decline. However it is undeniable that the kinds of local trends and spending patterns reflect the prevalence of a generic customer profiles. I recall being present at a presentation by a local councillor who stated frankly that while many people may be unhappy about the kinds of shops renting properties on high streets today, it is much better than an empty shop. Adaptability seems to be the name of the game: in terms of how employers want their workers; how businesses and organisations need to survive; and I suppose in terms of how consumers are affected by their changing budgets. The main worry people have today I think is that when an iconic and prevalent presence leaves; the worry is not whether anything will take its place, but whether that thing will be just as memorable and cherished.

Sinistre

The Public Use of Reason

Lately I’ve been thinking about what some people refer to as freedom of the pen, or what Kant specifically calls the public use of reason. It is apparently flagrantly ignorant of me to believe that the reasons that people give for things are the reasons that they believe it to be the case, in a public fora. Many current affairs issues, political, social, economic or cultural rely on providing views as rationalised ideals and negotiable, subject to a truth or falsity, or part of the forum of rational discussion. However, it would be ignorant to suspect that more isn’t going on. Engaging in public discussion, whether this is a presence on the print media, bloggosphere, television or other form of video discussion, or even dare I say it, comments pages, often rely on a point of view that is backed up by a form of reasoning. The notion of a public use of reason presumes a communicability of our values to a wider audience, however there is an extent where privately, our values are not so communicable.

In this post I shall consider the distinction between private and public reasons; the application of public reason in ethics, aesthetics and finally some epistemic and normative considerations about communicability and the public use of reason.

Private and public use

What is a private appeal, or a private reason as opposed to the public use of reason? One may be to say that arguments against gay marriage for some people a thinly veiled prejudice against social change, or their inherent lack of acceptance of sexual difference. Another may be how I have encountered people who claim to be considered socialists who enjoy stating their point, but any appeal to conservatism by name (as in conservative thought and its history , or current party issues) will brand you as a party to right-wing tarnishing where their priming automatically inclines them to disagree. Often our public reasons are different to our private reasons. We cannot convince an agnostic audience of our view if we are basing it upon an unjustified fear, or an unquestionable conviction. However that said, I can often find a segregation of views, in that discourses may emerge where everyone is in broad agreement and the level of argumentation is poor because the vocabulary is non argumentative, and presumptive.

Just say a few words like ‘priviledge’ or ‘globalisation’ and our audience can be presumed. The appeals to private reason becomes a shorthand of an argument enthymatic. We cease to argue, and simply claim the assent of our listeners. If we disguise public reason as a private reason we undermine the role of the public forum, and we segregate those who disagree with us. By excluding those who disagree with us, we have no argument, simply we repeat views. Eventually if we are around enough repeaters, the shorthand for our reasons loses any form of reasoning. This to me looks like a form of populism.

Ethics

To have a private reason does not undermine that we have this conviction. However, it may be that we cannot convince our audience of an argument, or the veracity of a claim, or a political/ethical position through it. In Kant’s own time, the role of Reason was an appeal against religious moralistic kinds of reason in addressing issues of public and ethical importance. It is one thing to hold a moral conviction, or one based on a religious insight, but it is inadmissable in a public discourse to assume that others will come from this background or form of conviction. In order to appeal to a wider audience we must appeal to a universal kind of language that appeals wider.

I suppose this is where my catholic leanings betray me. It was the view of many Catholic thinkers from Aquinas to the 19thC that our reasons should appeal beyond the convictions of faith, but using a wider language of reason. The truths of the world would be revealed through in their terms, not just the scriptural revelation of the Bible, but also through the observable and grasping empirical world. The emphasis on rational thought as well as a faith conviction is understood to be one of the differences between Catholic (rational theology, or analogia entis) and protestant (revealed, analogia fides, sola scriptus) Christianities.

For individuals to engage outside of their own community of conviction they must appeal to argumentation, or facts that support their convictions. In the public context, this may be through empirical studies, secondary anaylsis of existing data, or some other form of scientific appeal. It is not enough to communicate an ethical or political conviction on the basis of a feeling, and even if it were, it would not be reasoning but a form of rhetoric. Unfortunately, Rhetoric is very popular these days, when democracy is built on consensus and the confidence of the public. This isn’t necessarily to conclude that democracies are poorly suited to rational discussion, but rather it may suggest the importance of an informed and well reasoning populace.  By well reasoning, I mean those who can distinguish between reasons which are convincing to others beyond themselves.

Aesthetics

When it comes to aesthetics, communicability is a bit of a difficult one for me. Why is it, you might ask, that a public form of reasoning could ever be important to justify what one’s favourite poem is, or why such and such a guitar riff is so powerful. I also consider it a point of asymmetry with ethics. In ethical and political discourse, it is considered a good to appeal to reasons of communicability, however when it comes to our experience/aesthetics, how could we appeal to anything but the subject-ive, or in other words, our response to the object?

Someone like MIchael or Destre would try to convince you that the reason to enjoy Bach is because of its formal beauty, but they themselves (Michael especially) would be personally highly emotively moved by the 48 preludes and Fugues, but could not possibly use this as an appealing reason to convince someone why they might like Bach. Appeal to private reasons I have stated resort to dispositions and temperaments that one already has, but how can we appeal to our sentiment of art and music when it is our personal response? The only way it would seem, is that if another agent we are talking with also has that engendered response. So I could only talk with other fans of Pearl Jam about my love of the ‘Ten’ album, and in this respect we are merely assenting agreement. This is not a form of communicability, only an assent to agreement or disagreement.

If political discourse worked this way, or ethical consensus, we would end up simply hanging around people we agreed with all the time. I think that this is in fact what happens in a lot of online discourse. People who tend to agree with each other camp together, and this may not be in political spheres but social spheres, the comedian Kate Smurthwaite has pointed out how a certain kind of comedian is commercially viable and popular due to the way that the industry of comedy orients towards favouring late-night comedy, where a certain kind of audience who enjoy a certain kind of joke are roused by samey routines that enable audiences to let off some steam.

Epistemic considerations

I think that communicability is a good way of trying to justify our beliefs. Instead of relying on our feelings and what we hold to be true as a brute fact (some epistemologists such as Williamson over the past decade have tried to encourage the merit of brute fact type reasons, or ‘primitives’ over epistemic schemes). Are we convinced of our beliefs if we can communicate it with others? I remember one piece of editorial advice I got from blogging here which was ‘if you can’t communicate it in simple words, you don’t have a valid idea’, communicability is quite a good epistemic benchmark for humbug arguments or reasons. In a sense, it is the first hurdle, the necessary benchmark but not one sufficient for being convinced of our beliefs. I propose this from a position that is unconvinced that epistemic primitives (such as the brute fact of our believing or percieving of some thing) are prima facie convincing.

Normative considerations

This whole proposal about the public use of reason is presumptive, I am for example presumptive of the fact that within public discourses, our believes must answer to some form justificatory schema and not brute reasons which command assent or disagreement among those whom there is no form of discussion, but simply appealing to what they already believe. This is what I would take to be a populism. So lets go back to our values. The public use of reason is what I would take to be a starting point in points of discussion, whether these are current issues or issues of political ideology. I would take it to be an epistemic norm and an epistemic good to hold to the ideal of the public use of reason.

Coda: current issues

I’ve been led to thinking about the public use of reason from a variety of stories that have emerged lately. The phenomenon of trolling, or specifically the appeal to derogatory and defamatory language as a form of silencing, undermining and derailing reminds me of the public and private distinction I have made. News services in the Gaming industry IGN and to a lesser extent, Machinima display a level of journalism which is outright misogynist at times and is unapologetic, this I think reflects the fact that a certain type of male gamer is so visible as the archetypical gamer, who casually swears, enjoys trash talk and wouldn’t think twice about the symbolism of using sexual violence analogies to describe playing a game. Gamers feel so strongly about this behaviour as a form of entitlement that they would go so far as to defame and troll a Kickstarter project forged by Anita Sarkeesian on Gender and gaming.

Likewise I have heard numerous stories of journalists and writers who have experienced campaigns of trolling and defamation for speaking out on various issues. Judith Butler had a petition against being awarded the Adorno Prize for her views on Israeli politics, her response was nuanced and pertinent to this distinction. I’ve also recently explored a website called Reddit, which has a bizarre mix of private reasons and public reasoning. There is one extreme where all of the threads are mostly reactionary and highly rated comments are those that refer to people as fagets in full caps lock, while others involve informed debate where people are open minded enough to disagree or willing to change their mind. The internet age was initially considered as a democratising force for creating an informed public who had a forum for public reasoning, but the way that customisation and orienting around ‘likes’ and ‘favourites’ surrounds an internet user simply around people and environments in which they would agree. It’s like going to a party and only hanging around with people you know: you don’t need to cover any new ground, being around those you agree with or share the same sentiments simply fosters a shorthand of discussion, where little is actually elaborated and everything is simply agreed upon.

Sinistre