Sunday, February 28, 2010

Oh, those magical Christians


I've been thinking, lately, about the "magical" elements of Christianity. And lo, in an article in the Jewish Review of Books ("It's not just for Jews anymore!"), I read this:
To put it crudely, if Christianity is a fantasy religion, then Judaism is a science fiction religion. If the former is individualistic, magical, and salvationist, the latter is collective, technical, and this-worldly.
The article, incidentally, was quite interesting; it asks, and attempts to answer, why there have been no great Jewish fantasy writers. But I digress: I'm wondering about the characterization of Christianity as "magical", which, I think, is not inaccurate. There are certainly elements of the religion that defy any sort of conventional logic (viz., transubstantiation, parthenogenesis, trinitarianism, &c.). In recent centuries, various sects have attempted to excise those elements that have proven increasingly baffling to modern man. The end result of this process is, I suppose, Unitarianism. My favorite Unitarian joke, if you must know, is this:
Q: How do you get a Unitarian family to leave town?
A: Burn a question mark in their front yard.
Last night while I was trying to fall asleep it occurred to me that, should one remove all the "magical" elements of Christianity, one is left without any sort of physical manifestation of the Divine whatsoëver. The Real Presence in the Eucharist? Out. The Incarnation? Nope. Miracles? Well, of course not. A de-magicized Christianity is, in fact, a good deal more "spiritual" and a lot less material.

Here I shall make an argumentum ad verecundiam: Wendell Berry says we need to be a good deal more cognizant that we are creatures of matter, so it must be true. (The implications of this are fodder for a great many other posts, but I shan't delve into that here.) I wonder, however, how a Unitarian, or a Jeffersonian agnostic, or certain Episcopalians, can back up this sentiment without recourse to that absurd idea that matter itself has been made divine.

Any thoughts? I suppose I'm a bit out of my depth here, both theologically and philosophically.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Am I Going to Watch the Health Care Summit?

In short: No.

And why not? I won't watch, because my sense is that the incentives for cooperating or not cooperating in discussion are more or less transparent for both the President and Congressional Republicans, such that watching would yield no new, relevant, or interesting information to me about the process of health reform. To illustrate, what follows is an account of how I think things will go down.

How I Think Things Will Go Down

There are several of moving parts to this reasoning, so I'll try to handle things in a stepwise fashion. To begin, let's lay out some terminology. Call Republican grandstanding and parroting their current talking points "Heckling" and call Republicans who do this "Hecklers." Call the President calling out the Hecklers' Heckling "Silencing the Hecklers" or some derivation thereof.

Step 1
I don't think that the Republicans will be able to have something that does not look like a productive discussion, since the threat of being Silenced by the President on national television ought to deter most Hecklers, and since the President will quite simply Silence any Heckler undeterred by the threat.

Step 2
Then, the President will tout which Republican ideas are already in the bill and lay out some new (though probably unexpected ones) that he's willing to compromise on.

Step 3
Then, one of three things will happen: (A) Republicans won't know how to respond to the President's charity in Step 2, and will look like morons in their attempt; (B) The Republicans will just keep Heckling, in which case, see Step 1; or (C) the Republicans respond amiably and the conversation is productive. One notes that, for (A), (B), or (C) the President comes off looking like the hero. And even if the Republicans refuse to converse cooperatively, the President looks great too, because, hey, at least he tried, right? So, either way, the Republicans look bad on this, and the President looks good.

Step 4
But just because the President looks good at the discussion does not mean that he'll win the spin game afterward. One can imagine a scenario (i), in which he does win the spin game, since he'll have so many positive clips from the discussion. But scenario (ii) is possible, as well, and in this one, the Republicans are able to manipulate the spin such that the President gains no significant advantage from having triumphed in the discussion.

The Analysis

Notice, though, that none of these steps ought to provide sufficient motivation to watch the discussion. Consider the following

For Step 1, I don't know about you, but I've already had my fill of watching the President Silence his Hecklers, so the possibility of witnessing the undeterred Heckler being Silenced by the President doesn't have a lot of pull.
For Step 2, I can read a more comprehensive discussion of the President's additional compromises in Friday's New York Times, or wherever, than whatever the President will give on Thursday, so hearing a rough version Thursday when I can read a better version Friday is hardly motivation to tune in Thursday
For Step 3, the motivation provided by (A) and (B) are the same as for Step 1; hence, no motivation to watch. (C), I'll admit, could turn out to be motivating.

For Step 4, while interesting, this is entirely about the post-game spin, much of which will take place on Friday, since the discussion happens in the evening on Thursday. Thus, since only the post-game spin is (mildly) interesting, I have no real motivation to watch the game itself.
All of that said, this analysis comes up short on one key concern that I have. Briefly, it's that some Republican strategists surely know better about these things than I know. So, just as surely, they've anticipated something like the predictions I provided--the conclusion of each scenario being: Republicans lose. But one would expect that their knowledge that they will lose under any analysis like the one I've given would have provided sufficient motivation for Republicans not to enter into the debate. It would have, anyway, if the Republicans who knew better didn't have some trick up their sleeve that they thought could derail the likely outcome of the discussion. Call this possibility Step 3 (D), in which Republicans throw some unexpected curve ball at the President and end up running away with the coverage.

The possibility of (D) speaks in favor, I think, of watching the discussion. So does (C). But for the latter, given the intransigence of Republicans throughout the entire health care reform debate, I don't see how this discussion would motivate them in any greater degree to cooperate than had any other previous discussion. This seems especially reasonable, given that their incentive to participate in this discussion was surely lower than the incentive not to participate, if the likely consequence of participating was cooperation and the eventual passage of health care reform, and the likely consequence of not participating was a week or so of bad coverage of Republican unwillingness to cooperate.

Now, those incentives shift significantly if Republicans are highly confident that their wild card in (D) will overcome the President's intellect and rhetorical skill. And they must be, for why else would they concede to having the discussion in the first place, if they weren't confident that they could beat the President? I don't think that they would.

But even with Republican confidence in their wild card, is the likelihood of (D) so great that I should spend my time watching the discussion, waiting for (D) rather than doing whatever else I was going to do? I think not. Here's why. The likelihood of (D) isn't dependent uniquely on the Republicans confidence in (D); in fact, it's not dependent on their confidence at all. The likelihood of (D) is dependent on the President's inability to overcome (D)'s wild card, and that inability is, itself, dependent both upon all of the President's men not having anticipated (D)'s wild card in advance, and upon the President not being able to skillfully handle the wild card when it arises. In short, the likelihood of (D) depends upon the President being less intelligent and talented than Congressional Republicans. And since I think that this is very unlikely, I have little confidence in the likelihood of (D), and thus have little motivation to watch the discussion.


Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Grotesque

A few nights ago, I watched a French film entitled Irreversible, by Romanian director and screenwriter Gaspar Noé. Noé develops the narrative by ordering the forward-moving scenes in reverse chronology, much in the way of Christopher Nolan's Memento. So, the first scene of the narrative depicts the final ten minutes of the story, minutes (say) eighty through ninety; the second scene depicts minutes seventy-one through eighty; and so on, until we see the first nine minutes of the story when the film ends. [To help clarify some of the terminology, let's call the plot as told in reverse-chronologic scenes the narrative and the plot as told in standard chronology the story.]


Anyone who's heard anything about this film has at least heard about Monica Bellucci's nine-minute, uncut, steady cam rape scene. Suffice it to say: not easy watchin'. In addition, the first twelve minutes (or so) includes the most brutal depiction of a murder that any film has ever exposed me to. Now, if I were to ask you which character you thought the murder victim was, which would guess? And the murderer? Since the plot involves the rape of a female character, your stock assumptions about who takes revenge upon whom would be correct: respectively, the rape victim's boyfriend and the supposed rapist.

In short, what I'm saying is that the film's story is pretty unoriginal.

Story Plot

What makes the film interesting, then, is it's narrative.

Narrative Plot
SCENE 1: In which we see a character is murdered with incomparable brutality.
SCENE 2: In which we learn that the murder victim raped the murderer's girlfriend.
SCENE 3: In which we learn that the murderer is a philanderer and used coke before finding out his girlfriend had been raped.
SCENE 4: In which we see the rape, learning thereby that the boyfriend murdered the wrong guy.
Etc. etc.


One notes that all of the past-tense verbs in the narrative description would be future-tense verbs in the story description. So, when we learn that the murder victim was presumed to have raped the boyfriend's girlfriend, we believe in the story that the murderer will avenge his girlfriend. And when we learn in the narrative that the boyfriend murdered the wrong guy, we know in the story that he will murder the wrong guy. What the film is doing, then, is offering us an overdone storyline and showing us just how that storyline normally manipulates our emotions. For senseless violence startles us. But vengeance thrills us and justifies the violence. But philandering and drug use mitigates our sense of justice. And the rape itself becomes all the more horrible, then, because we know that the rapist will not meet justice. Based on this sort of analysis of the plot, I'd submit that Noé's purpose it to point to a problem with standard stories: so much richness in a plot is lost, simply in virtue of the order in which we depict it.

Now my purpose with all of this is not to meditate on Noé's film. It is, rather, to ask a simple question of the film's content: to what extent does the gruesome depiction of certain sorts of human behavior require justification? Reading the negative commentary of Irreversible, I found that in their reviews his critics treated this abhorrence as a sort of cheap, sideshow trick used to startle and enrage his audiences. And as evidenced by these very critics, the 'trick' did just that. But having watched the film, I can't help but think that the repugnance of those two scenes is playing a much larger role in a complex commentary on just how films jigger with our emotions—how willing we are to accept the premises of some films and reject those of others, despite incredible similarity in film structure.

My suspicion is that such an analysis could apply to most other art forms—novels chiefly, and to some lesser extent music and painting. But even so, in the best case scenario for Noé, the disgustingness of those scenes is essential to the delivery of his message. If we accept that premise (or some weakened version of it), to what degree does the moral outrage that watching those scenes motivates in us demand justification? Or does it at all?

After all, when we buy our tickets at the theatre or pay our rental fee (or peel back the first pages of a book, hear the first taps of the baton on the music stand), there's a sense in which we have consented to allowing the author/director/conductor to inspire us with certain emotions and to thereby raise questions about whatever topic is of interest to him. And those who disappoint and satisfy us, we call them respectively terrible and great. But whatever the sense in which the director has obligations to his audience, I would argue that the audience has similar obligations to him—to treat whatever depiction he offers with what we might call a Principle of Aesthetic Charity. Such a principle might require us assume that any director is attempting to point our attention to something better than the base and low. I would also argue that such a principle operates in tandem with a second: The Principle of Coherence, which stipulates that the best interpretation of a work is that which can consistently account for greatest number of the most important elements in the work. And if the most coherent interpretation shows that (say) a director employed certain techniques or depicted certain base and low images that cannot be accounted for under that coherent interpretation, then our obligation to the Principle of Aesthetic Charity dissolves, for it's clear in such a circumstance that the author was utilizing the base and low in just the sorts of ways that Gaspar Noé's critics have accused him.

A corollary, of course, is that if the depiction of the base can be accounted for in the most coherent interpretation, then there is some degree of obligation on the interpreter to accept that depiction. For my part, I do not find this obligation too extreme—but then, there are many human behaviors that I have never seen depicted.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Dumb Things Read on the Internet, Vol. 1

"I suppose it’s possible that Dear Leader’s regime may seek to consolidate political power to the point where the transcendent is eclipsed by a world-immanent polis. And, while there is always a remnant that will worship God there appears a point when the libido dominandi surges and engages in the passion of war and death. The problem is that the world-transcendent truth, which is the ordering force of the soul, has been rejected by the current world-immanent regime, the milieu, the politeia and disorder dominates as men engage in Apostrophe, the turning away from the Divine ground.

"The good news is that remnant may just be the Tea Party people."

Ah, there it is. I'd never considered the Connexion between the world-immanent and its Remnant in the inimmanent. How the world-transcendent Orders de anima homo--and how to evade the Milieu-catalyzed Apostrophe--is a Story for another Day.

It's easier to believe that a computer program chose words randomly from Hegel and composed them thusly than it is to believe that another human being sits around having thoughts like that all day long, isn't it?

If it helps at all, "Dear Leader" is a reference to President Obama. Or Rocky and Bullwinkle.

See  full size image

Notice the resemblance?

See the original quotation, here.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Another Berry-ite

Here. A Montanan (I think) tries for one year to live (almost) as Wendell Berry's work might instruct him. It's always interesting to me which behaviors Berry fanatics--whose numbers include both Ross and me--try to excise from their routines and which they live on with.

Monday, February 8, 2010

"Moral Luck"?

[cross-posted with (at?) Joyous Catastrophe]

I'm not a regular reader of The New Yorker, but if I happen upon it (i.e., if I find it unused in the common kitchen area of the house), I'll give it a look-see. In an article on Van Gogh, there's a digression on Gauguin—who, like Wagner, happened to be a generally terrible man who made extraordinary art.
[Bernard] Williams points out that Gauguin's is a prime real-life case where doing the wrong thing—abandoning your wife and children and betraying your friends—appears to be morally justifiable, since the art made was, as it happened, great. Moral assessment, Williams suggests, has a strong component of sheer contingency and chance. You run a red light and no one notices; I run a red light and hit an old lady and I'm the worst guy in the world.
Gauguin is the original of the type, of whom Picasso is the most famous realization, of the artist as gambler—the solitary risk-taker, indifferent to anyone's welfare but his own and therefore capable of acts of independence and originality unknown to timid, orderly, nice people, acts that thrill and inspire new acts a century later. It is the goal of that kind of modern artist to run the red light and hit the old ladies—the old ladies of custom and convention. Where art since the Renaissance had attempted to limit luck in a system of inherited purpose and patterns, modern art demands that you press the pedal as hard as you can, and pray.

So that's what's wrong with modern art: the urge to upset people enough to be remembered for it by future generations, and the rejection of "inherited purpose". The great myth of modern art (of modern man, come to think of it) is that the artist is an autonomous individual whose actions, however abhorrent, may be justified by the acclaim of people unknown, or unborn.

It is far to easy for me to sit back in my armchair and complain, though. Let me talk of something I may be a bit more qualified to discuss: music. We see the same type among composers, as well: Wagner, Schoenberg, perhaps even Mahler(?!). But the world would be a far worse place without the music of these men. (For those uncertain about Schoenberg, I suggest you try his Gurrelieder, or Verklärte Nacht. Gorgeous pieces.) Would their great art have been possible if these men had not been egotistical bastards? I don't know.

Reason the First, why England is better than the United States

Its citizens are able to recompose their leaders' speeches thusly.

Somehow, in spite of what obviously constituted a prodigious effort on behalf of its producers, the American version doesn't quite pass muster.