Reflections on philosophy and culture

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Religion, Ethics, Cosmology

Below is the text of a presentation I did last night for the AU Philosophy Club's occasional public forum, Philosophy at the Gnu's Room.  It consists in a few rough thoughts in response to Thomas Nagel's wonderful essay, "Secular Philosophy and the Religious Temperament," whose themes I'd like to write about more formally in the near future.

I want to talk a little bit about common ground between secular and religious points of view.  Now, when I talk about common ground, I don’t mean touchy-feely can’t-we-all-get-along let’s-celebrate-our-similarities-rather-than-our-differences common ground, but something much more like the kind of common ground that two armies have to share in order to do battle with each other.  That is, I want to pose the question: what kinds of intellectual ambitions do religious and secular thought have in common?  What are the spoils of war, so to speak, over which religious and secular thought are in competition?

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Future

Finally saw Miranda July's latest film The Future last night in Montgomery. Some lampshade-hanging (a girl buried neck-deep in the earth) flags the echoes of Beckett in this story, which resonate in both its dialogue (like Vladimir and Estragon, the two main characters have a strangely and amusingly tenuous grip on the ordinary world) and its theme (the human significance of the passage of time). But Miranda July's distinctive voice - the same voice she has, no matter whether the medium is film, performance art, sound art, or fiction - shines through. I think this is going to be one of the rare films I buy on DVD and watch many times over again...

Monday, October 24, 2011

Lost in the Library of Babel

To anyone familiar with his fiction, it should be no surprise that Borges's short story "The Library of Babel" provides, in the titular Library, a prophetically ideal image for contemporary mass culture.  The Library contains every possible book - every combinatorially possible string of letters, spaces, commas and periods, including:

"the detailed history of the future, the autobiographies of the archangels, the faithful catalog of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogs, the proof of the falsity of those false catalogs, a proof of the falsity of the true catalog, the gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary upon that gospel, the commentary on the commentary on that gospel, the true story of your death, the translation of every book into every language, the interpolations of every book into all books, the treatise Bede could have written (but did not) on the mythology of the Saxon people, the lost books of Tacitus."

-Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions, p. 61.

The analogue I have in mind for the Library is, of course, the internet.  It is, in the contemporary imagination, the Omniscient Archive of all human symbolic production. 

Saturday, September 24, 2011


I've been making my way slowly through Adorno's Minima Moralia - reading the short, aphoristic sections one at a time and savoring them.  For a long time, I'd heard references to his 'dialectical style,' never understanding quite what people meant by that until I started in on the text for myself.

I would compare Adorno to Oscar Wilde - surely his wit and sense of irony is equally as impressive.  But the comparison would be misleading.  Adorno is like the straight man to Wilde's funny man.  This is not to say that Wilde's humor isn't frequently the vehicle for expressing the most consequential ideas: they certainly are.  But it's hard to imagine Wilde speaking any of his words without the hint of a wry smile at the corner of his mouth - the certainty shining forth from behind his eyes that he can outmaneuver anyone foolish enough to meet his levity with fury, hostility, or even deadly seriousness.

But when I imagine Adorno speaking the words of Minima Moralia out loud, I imagine him stern, monotone, with no suggestion in his manner of speech that he is aware of the pervasive schizophrenia of his prose - its ability to oscillate between different subject positions, to contain many voices in a single stream of thought.  Like Buster Keaton's unflappably calm, bored face amidst the chaos he creates around him, it would be an uncanny island of seriousness in a sea of absurdity - the strange absurdity of Adorno's words.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Yet another rant about comics...

Lately, I've been forsaking traditional fiction more and more in favor of...graphic novels? sequential art? narrative art?

These are labels that have popped up in the last thirty years or so to express the fact that comics have become a mature art form in their own right. To my knowledge, the first such label was "graphic novel," a term purportedly coined by Will Eisner when he was pitching A Contract with God on the phone with a publisher. This book has the reputation of having been the first book-length comics narrative (putting aside collections of previous short-form comics). Eisner has said that he knew it was something new. This was not just because it was a book-length comic, but also because it dealt with subject matters - urban decay, child molestation, the Great Depression, Jewish culture in America - usually left to more 'serious' art forms.

Since Eisner's groundbreaking work, a lot has changed for comics, and a lot hasn't. Many, many brilliant works have been produced in the medium, and many of them have garnered attention from a wider audience. Yet, although it's been twenty years since Art Spiegelman won the Pultizer for Maus, and although the work of luminaries like Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes graces the pages of The New Yorker and the New York Times, most people who read literature simply don't read comics.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

New Resources for Long Essays

Scott Esposito at Conversation Reading has posted links to two new resources for long essays, Byliner and Atavist. Byliner is a site which both publishes new essays and provides a platform for users to share their favorite essays and discover new ones. Atavist is a boutique publisher devoted to long-form essays, and uses a software called Periodic to make their essays available in various eReader formats. Periodic allows writers to include interactive video, audio and images in their essays.

I sincerely hope these sites survive. As Esposito points out, long-form essays are increasingly being neglected by magazines, and much online publishing is devoted to very short units of text (from news articles all the way to infinitesimal tweets). Just browsing these sites for an hour or so this morning, I've already found an interesting recent essay by J.M. Coetzee and a twelve-year-old NYT profile of Martha Nussbaum.