Saturday, April 19, 2014

Rites of Spring (Re-resartus)

Today  I hauled the old lawnmower out of the shed, where it had long lain hibernating.   (I say “the” shed  since the reference is in fact unambiguous:   unlike Arthur ‘Two Sheds’ Jackson, I personally possess only one shed.)  I gassed ‘er up, and, in lieu of actually oiling anything or “replacing the plugs and points” (what is a point, exactly?), since I don’t understand anything about lawnmowers, I contented myself with prodding it here and there with my toe, and eyeing it with a masculine, propriety air -- with just a hint of asperity to it, along the lines of, “Let’s not have any of that won’t-start-up nonsense this time, shall we?”
For we have here that annually recurring agony of vernal uncertainty.   You set your stance, seize the ripcord, let loose your mightiest tug, and… it either leaps to life with a throaty roar, or… splutters impotently, mocking you, and then you’re hosed.
(I must here explain for the ladies, who would otherwise scarcely understand, that failure of one’s lawnmower to start, is humiliating for a man.)
Yet lo!   With a deafening neigh  worthy of Bucephalus,

Dr Justice, taming his lawnmower

and a forward leap recalling Pegasus,

My trusty mower, defeating the weeds

the noble mower sprang into action -- the very first on our cul-de-sac, this season, to do so!
Thanking the gods, I strode forward, laying low the uppity tussocks  and insolent weeds,  like Hector mowing down Myrmidons, relishing in Man’s estate.
In ancient Rome, it was considered a most auspicious omen, when one’s lawnmover started right up  in the spring.

~   ~
For an exhilarating parable
in which Spring becomes general,
and dry twigs  send forth  green leaves,   see
Murphy and the Magic Pawnshop
~   ~


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Cruore spumantem


New states are born free,  yet everywhere  they are in chains.
-- Ernest Gellner, “Democracy and Industrialization” (1967)

One gets the impression, after a slackening  following the end of the traditional Cold War, and the period of high hopes for newly-independent nations, born both of the breakup of the Soviet bloc, and the retreat of European colonialism  from the continents they once stabilized  tant bien que mal,  that lines are being drawn, for some wide-ranging upcoming conflicts.  But their pattern is not yet clear.  The antagonisms and (very unstable) alliances  will likely be determined as much by climate change, and water shortages, and the general worldwide “scissors effect” (Trotsky, before his time) as any traditionally recognizable allegiances.

Europe is nervous.  It looks south, and sees its future in Lampedusa.

[On that matter, consult the article "The Anchor", in the current New Yorker.]

Hannibal ante portas!

World population growth has been leveling off, save in the one region least able to feed itself, Sub-Saharan Africa.   And so the population presses north.

Fears of political submersion and cultural annihilation  would drive the privileged population into an ultra attitude:  liberalism would go by the board. … One can hardly feel very confident that Europeans-in-Europe, faced with a situation analogous to the one facing settler populations [e.g. Boers in South Africa, Jews in Palestine] -- no other world to which to retreat, and in danger of submersion -- would behave in a way markedly better than did or do the colons.
-- Ernest Gellner, Thought and Change (1964), p. 178

It is notable that this was written in the early 1960s, just before a wave of Western romanticization of the Third World arrived.  Gellner in 1964, like Enoch Powell in 1968,  was looking farther down the line.

*     *     *
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Relief for beleaguered Nook lovers!
We now return you to your regularly scheduled essay.
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The 1996 book It Takes a Village, by Barbara Feinman (writing as “Hillary Clinton”), was meant -- commendably -- to point to the need (which in practice, in America, had never been denied, until recently) for community involvement in child-rearing, beyond the autarky of the nuclear family.  Such was the unquestioned state of affairs during my own childhood:  church, school, Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, Little League, summer camps, YMCA, …  The need has become more acute in this time of fragmented families, or households that were never a full and normal family at all.   The book dissents, though in liberal guise, from the new-hatched doctrine that all you need for healthy happy productive children  is a baby-mama and her welfare check.

The title purports to translate an African proverb (which has enough truth not to quibble with;  see Wiki for originals);  and indeed, in the setting of traditional Africa (which largely no longer exists), it is true enough.  But in our own time, such does not suffice.  In the words of an especially perceptive socio-historian, writing over half a century ago:

A Greek village can produce a little Greek, a Nuer village can make new Nuers … It is however awkward to say that (for instance) a French village can produce a Frenchman.  Can it?  It can certainly produce a French peasant, who is a kind of Frenchman.  But a Frenchman without qualification?
Village-size social units  are no longer competent to produce fully life-sized human beings.  A Nuer village can still produce a Nuer, but it is incapable of producing an effective Sudanese citizen.
-- Ernest Gellner, Thought and Change (1964), p. 158

Note the date.  The insight is striking, now that Sudan itself has fragmented into two, and the fragments themselves are dysfunctional.   A friend who has followed the Sudanese situation for years, reports that the race war between Nuer and Dinka  is currently absolutely savage, though this finds little reflection in the press, which (understandably) has its own space-limitations for Third World meshugaas.
This (widely anticipated, though unspoken) result, illustrates once more  the instability of micronationalisms;  and exemplifies (Gellner again), the tenet, “The world is richer in cultural differentiations, and in systematic injustices, than it has room for ‘nations’.” ( )

Pay No Attention to the Reality Behind the Curtain

In a very interesting chapter on Nationalism, in his somewhat abstract (“highly schematised and simplified” is the author’s own self-assessment) but closely-argued book, Thought and Change (1964), Ernest Gellner delivers himself of the following trenchant epigram:

The philosopher-kings of the underdeveloped world  all act as Westernisers, and all talk like narodniks.

The observation applies as well in America, with the Bible Belt playing the role of the underdeveloped world.   The populist politicians  put on a charade of being Just Folks, while still serving the interests of slash-and-burn capitalism.


In the post below,

            What’s the Matter with Kansas?

we spoke warmly of the book of that title by Thomas Frank.   The book’s thesis is easily summarized:   The bosses are grinding labor into dust;  in response, broad sectors of the populace are getting worked up about … abortion. 
That might strike you as an exaggeration, since the stories that support it are usually undramatic, involving neither celebrities nor sex nor dramatic explosions.  But there is one recent story that did involve a deadly explosion, so we actually get some follow-up.  Frank’s thesis is supported once again:

A Fertilizer Plant Blows Up a Texas Town and State Lawmakers Rush to Regulate...Abortion Clinics
In the two and a half months since an explosion at a West, Texas, fertilizer storage facility left 12 first responders dead and at least 200 people injured, two things have become clear. The disaster could have been avoided if the proper regulations had been in place and enforced—and state and federal agencies don't appear to be in a hurry to put those regulations in place or enforce them.
Texas, whose lax regulatory climate has come in for scrutiny in the aftermath of the West explosion, went into a special session of its state legislature on Monday to push through an omnibus abortion bill designed to regulate 37 abortion clinics out of existence. But the 2013 session will come to a close without any significant action to impose safeguards on the 74 facilities in the state that contain at least 10,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate.
Lawmakers in Austin have a handy excuse for punting on new fertilizer regulations: That would be intrusive. State Sen. Donna Campbell, the Republican who helped to shut down Democratic Sen. Wendy Davis' filibuster of the abortion bill on procedural grounds, told the New York Times that lawmakers should be wary of monitoring chemical plants more closely because there's "a point at which you can overregulate."

For details of just how bad it is (“Free from the constraints of fire codes, the West Fertilizer Co. stored ammonium nitrate in wooden boxes and didn't even have a sprinkler system.”), check out the article.

[Update, 7 July 2013]  For a scholarly survey, from MIT,  of the way in which “companies freely displace, or ‘externalize’, costs of production onto the public by polluting neighborhoods just outside the factory gates”, cf.  Sacrifice Zones (2010), by Steve Lerner.   Among the ecological Gomorrahs singled out for study, is Corpus Christi, Texas.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

On Excessively General Questions (further generalized)

In our essay, “On What There Is”,  we confessed ourselves unequal to the task of addressing the question of Being, bare.   Compare further:

You asked me the use of criticism.  You might just as well have asked me  the use of thought.
-- Oscar Wilde, “The Critic as Artist” (1891)

Bizarrely, though the question was meant satirically, that very phrase occurs as a chapter-title in a book written by the philosopher and historian Ernest Gellner  in all seriousness:  “The Uses of Thought”.
The succeeding chapter-titles are equally grandiose:  “The Uses of Doubt”, and “The Stuff of Change”.  This occur in his volume from 1964, the even grander Thought and Change.  Yet this is odd, since Gellner’s general thrust  is deflationary.

Cf. also the classic Heideggerian title, Was heisst denken?, to which we have often had occasion to allude.

What NOT to name the baby

In the United States, in recent decades, such controversy as there exists over names for newborns  focuses on tasteless extravagances by the socially marginal:  “Messiah”, “Moon Unit”, and names with non-alphabetic characters (brilliantly anticipated by Monty Python in a classic sketch).

Now Saudi Arabia has banned fifty names -- a few of them quite traditional (Binyamin, `Abd-al-Nâsir) but currently associated with prominent personae non gratae.   So, if you are planning on residing in the Kingdom, and are wondering how to christen the bundle of joy, take care to avoid these:

Malaak (angel)
Abdul Aati
Abdul Naser
Abdul Musleh
Nabi (prophet)
Nabiyya (female prophet)
Amir (prince)
Sumuw (highness)
Al Mamlaka (the kingdom)
Malika (queen)
Mamlaka (kingdom)
Tabarak (blessed)
Basmala (utterance of the name of God)
Rama (Hindu god)
Binyamin (Arabic for Benjamin)
Abdul Nabi
Abdul Rasool
Jibreel (angel Gabriel)
Abdul Mu’een

(In the matter of “Moon Unit”, the article is silent.)

For an audio-essay on this news item, by Leila Babès:

For our own fatwa on the matter:


~      ~

a   lone   loon
floating   semi-submerged
within/upon  the lake

~       ~

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Die fröhliche Wissenschaft (lo gai saber)

I wish to make a serious argument about the relation of the cosmos, God, and the human purpose.
But I wish to do so in a certan lightsome mood.
-- James Schall, S.J., The Order of Things (2007), p. 60

Ein Universitätslehrer, der sein wenig anmutendes Spezialfach  reichlich mit Witzen zu würzen pflegt [to “sow it with jokes”].
-- Sigmund Freud, Der Witz und seine Beziehung zm Unbewussten (1905 ff)

These could serve as  motto for this site.

David Riesman (The Lonely Crowd, 1961)  laments the impairment of the American spirit of playfulness   at the hands of post-Puritan sobersides:  “It may be a long time before the damage done to play during the era depending on inner-direction  can be repaired.”

Richard Rorty writes (Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, II.iv.1):

The spirit of playfulness which seemed about to enter philosophy around 1900  was, however, nipped in the bud.  Just as mathematics had inspired Plato to invent ‘philosophical thinking’, so serious-minded philosophers turned to mathematical logic  for rescue from the exuberant satire of their critics.  The paradigmatic figures in this attempt to recapture the mathematical spirit  were Husserl and Russell.

Here the via mathematica and the via jocosa are counterposed.   Whereas for us, they intertwine  like the rose and the briar.

Thus Gerald Holton, in a review (reprinted in The scientific imagination) of the work of Lewis Mumford:
I was … delighted with Mumford’s … acknowledgement that there is a subjective and qualitative side to the doing of science  which scientists hardly ever talk about, the “intellectual playfulness and aesthetic delight” in scientific work, which can be an enormously important component of scientific motivation.

“Playfulness” was one of the favorite words of the Romance philologist (and my former teacher) Yakov Malkiel -- though you would not have known it to look at that hard-working, ever-professorial man, twice over an exile.   This was evident, not only in his writing style (which, for better or worse, has influenced by own), but in his actual etymological practice.  Certain cruxes of etymology, which had resisted the usual attacks of sound-law philology, he would attempt to explain as the free creation of the human spirit: and indeed, such bodacious onomastic hippogriffs abso-blumin'-lutely do exist.  This, in contrast to the sobersides scholar who would attempt to lautgesetz back to some obscure figment of hypothetical Vulgar Latin, or else claim Celtic or Klingon substrate -- thus missing the joke.

O mistress mine ....

It is key to the cognitive style of such thinkers as Richard Feynman;  and not accidentally, as retaining a streak of the child is helpful in leavening fact-impacted thinking.

Again Holton:

As Einstein himself once said, he succeeded  in good part  because he kept asking himself questions concerning space and time  which only children wonder about.


The original Provençal gai saber, which seems to lie at the center of a collection of near-equivalents (joyful wisdom, gai savoir), specifically  denoted the art of composing love-poetry in the then-contemporary style, that of the troubadours.  As that art has alas passed from the planet, felled by the effects of the Albigensian Crusade,  we use it (as did Nietzsche et alia) in a wider sense, denoting the desired confluence of homo sapiens and homo ludens.

Si cela vous parle,
savourez la série noire
en argot authentique d’Amérique :


Da nun  in meine Darstellung  mancherlei einfließen wird, was strengen Richtern  unwissenschaftlich erscheinen muß,  so möchte ich dieses  einigermaßen  durch das Zugeständnis entwaffnen, daß dem Ganzen  die Überschrift  Allotria gebühre …
-- Hugo Schuchardt, “Der Individualismus in der Sprachforschung”, in Leo Spitzer, ed., Hugo Schuchardt-Brevier (1921; 2nd edn. 1928), p. 422


The fact that language is used for communication  is no more intrinsic to it  than its use to tell jokes …
-- Norbert Hornstein, Logic as Grammar (1984), p. 119

So far, however, from exalting the raconteur’s art, that passage stems from a practitioner of the singularly humorous Chomskyan Government-and-Binding school;  and means, not to enrich our notion of language with that of humor, but to squeeze it dry  even of semantics.