Friday, November 30, 2007

A Week Happened, And Brendan Was In It

It's time again for This Week In Brendan. And here's what I wrote:

The Grimm Brothers, Remixed
The Future Of Science Will Be Decided By Robots
A Path To Enlightenment In Comic Panels And Speech Bubbles
Art Can't Save Darfur But It Might Help
Let's Play Nice
The Not-So-Green Side of Marijuana
Dark Matter: What The Heck Is It

Here we go guys - you know what to do: click the links, comment like crazy, defeat my detractors in round after round of blog-to-blog comment.

A Fact About The Twinned Cities: Minneapolis and Saint Paul




A group of fur-traders set up camp along the banks of a small lake in 1837, drawn by abundant water and game. The area was flat and fertile, perfect for settlement. When summer came, the group headed out east to gather people to found a new town – Minneapolis – the city of the lake.

The problem was that the settlers had kept themselves amused through the long winter by getting profoundly and consistently drunk, and on the way back, the head of the expedition, Silas Sharksman, realized that they had no idea where the town actually was. In a late night meeting with his lieutenants, Sharksman proposed three courses of action: sending out an expeditionary force to scout for the lost settlement, scrapping the entire wagon train and return to Philadelphia, or deception.

The group decided to bluff. They continued out west, spinning lies to their settlers, as the wagon train ambled its way through the densely wooded hills. “Just over that hill,” they’d say, “there’s a fork in the road.” “And then we’ll be there?” The settlers would ask. “We’ll be close,” the trappers said. After a four and a half month trip – they had only enough provisions for three months – the exhausted group saw a lake on the horizon, which glinted the setting sun. “That’s it!” Sharksman yelled. “That’s the place where we will found the City of the lake!”

The excited band feasted that night, and the next morning they realized – with horror – that the area was littered with lakes. The lieutenants mutinied, and revealed the hoax to the settlers. The acrimonious group split in two: Sharksman’s group settled what is now Minneapolis, and a lieutenant named Paul Hawkes founded Saint Paul.

For the first decade of their settlement, the two cities waged a perpetual low-scale war. But as the nineteenth century grew bloodier, the repeated raids softened to a series of pranks, The cities’ unique founding is remembered to this day by the annual April Fools’ tradition of “Joking” in which the mayors of Saint Paul and Minneapolis prank each other.

One noteworthy “Joking” prank was played by Saint Paul mayor Monty Montson in 1924. He had successfully masqueraded as Minneapolis Mayor Garry Pegsson’s wife for an entire year before revealing his transvestism to an amused Twin Cities. Sally Pegsson – Garry’s wife – had spent the year on a relaxing Carrabeian vacation – provided by Montson, who, from then on was known by the Pegsons (and the local media) as "Mommy Mayor".

Monday, November 26, 2007

Why You Can't Ever Really Know Anybody - And Why That's Not So Bad, After All


We should be honest with one another, right? Because when we keep secrets from those closest to us, we create a rift: our intimates are being denied data they might otherwise use to understand us. So even when it’s awkward, or untimely, or it just plain hurts, we should be share the truth with our loved ones so that they can better understand who we really are.

Well. I don’t think so. I think that sometimes, some dishonesty can be really healthy in a relationship. Now, I don’t think that we should – in general – manipulate other people, if only for the simple reason that the pay-offs of manipulation (sex, attention, whatever) are outweighed by the distress of being a manipulator. But then again, sometimes hiding a part of yourself can be less about dishonesty and more about consciously crafting your public self.

To look at this, I’d point you in the direction of Jonathan Swift’s A Lady’s Dressing Room. In the poem a bumbling lover Stephon steals into the bathroom belonging to the girl he has a crush on, Celia. In there he finds a survey of disgusting things: her stained underwear, her dirty towels, and – worst of all – her chamber-pot. Stephon vows never to find another girl pretty ever again.

This poem is a staple of English classes. I was exposed to it countless times – burdened with ploughing through countless bumbling feminist analyses that marked Swift as a woman-hating demon. One prominent reading of the poem reckons Swift a misogynist (English professors, I suspect, use the poem to teach young undergrads the word misogynist). By focusing so much on Celia’s ugliness, Swift is saying that all women are ugly, he’s being a voyeur, he’s being bad, something.

But that’s a woeful misreading of the poem, I realize. In the last stanza, Swift writes that Stephon is actually an idiot. Now whenever he sees a woman, he thinks that they’re just ugly beasts instead of appreciating them as beautiful – even if they are ugly underneath their makeup, they are beautiful . Swift admonishes us instead to look at the conscious artifice of beauty, and appreciate it for the crafted thing it is:

Should I the Queen of Love refuse,
Because she rose from stinking Ooze?
To him that looks behind the Scene,
Satira's but some pocky Quean.

He soon would learn to think like me,
And bless his ravisht Sight to see
Such Order from Confusion sprung,
Such gaudy Tulips rais'd from Dung.


But what does this poem tell us about honesty? Well, Stephon does something that we modern 21st-century sensitive American types do: he tries to play archeologist to a person to discover their ‘true selves’. In loving someone, he wants to investigate. When he finds that what he loves is just an image, he reacts too strongly, and believes the lovely image to simply hide ugliness. When our friends keep secrets from us – especially those juicy secrets about betrayal, sex, pain, crime – we think that they are hiding important parts of their personalities, in the absence of which, we cannot understand their “true self”.

And thus we get a lot of clap-trap about coming clean, about talking things through.

Well, I don’t think that you need to talk everything in a relationship through. And I don’t think I need to know everything about a friend to stay friends with them. Instead, I think that the desire for knowledge about our friends’ secrets spring from no nobler source than a thirst for gossip and a hope for control. We have public, crafted selves. We reveal only parts of our personalities to the outside world. And rather than that being dishonest or slimy or wrong, I think it’s part of the essential part of being a person. But when we get close to someone, we may want to see their hidden side, thinking it somehow more special for being rarer.

Look, Celia’s private ugliness is accidental: she doesn’t mean for her dressing-room to be looked at. And yet her public beauty is conscious. And so Stephon makes a mistake by confusing Celia’s uncrafted accidental self with her crafted, public, intentioned self. Isn’t the consciously-crafted self more of a person than their accidental ugliness? If I am consciously kind, and yet, in a moment of drunken torpor, yell at a friend, you would forgive me, because I am in general a nice person – even if my natural reaction is nasty, and I display only a conscious, crafted niceness. We would not think that just because I put effort in to live well, that I am somehow nastily hiding a truer, albeit more vicious inner self.

This is why – by the way – it’s so embarrassing when people see you when you don’t expect them. When a co-worked walks by you when you are making fun of them, when your grandma accidentally stumbles across that video of you drunk that’s circulating around YouTube, when you send drunk e-mails.

Anyway.

One of the big problems with Stephon’s approach to Celia is that he sees the hidden Celia as her true self. He sees two descriptions of Celia: ugly Celia and pretty Celia. The ugly Celia is what’s ‘really real’. And similarly, when we demand honesty from our friends, we are imagining that getting all that juicy gossip will help us get to know our friends’ ‘true self’. But part of both Buddhist and (some) pragmatic epistemology is that descriptions of a thing are revisable and particular.

Let me unpack that. Buddhists think that all descriptions are impermanent and subjective. A person who we think is nice can be thought of as evil. A heavy rain might be a hassle for pedestrians, but great for farmers. Once we understand that the true nature of reality lacks human description, we are able to be more conscious with our description. Yeah, while we think that when a girl dumps us it sucks, we can also realize that it might not be the worst thing for everyone – the description is relative. Anyway – everything human, all description, is impermanent.

The pragmatic side of this is that all descriptions are revisable and particular. Whenever we describe something, we’re doing it from a particular angle, for a particular purpose, and we always leave open the option for changing our description. I describe a girl I see as beautiful, say – but then I see her face and, on closer inspection, she is actually a hag. Or: I think a girl is very charming and wonderful, then figure out that she is a girl that broke my friends’ heart, and suddenly her charm looks like artifice.

This doesn’t seem like too profound a thought on first blush. But, I think that it means something very important. For one, that we have no true self. There is no golden, unimpeachable, solid self: there is only a couple different selves under different descriptions. Look at the difference between Brendan as a cashier, Brendan as a journalist, Brendan as a roommate, and you can see how you can find at least three drastically different selves at play in a single person on a single day. This means, I think, that the process of trying to unearth our loved one’s true selves is wrong-headed. There is no true self to uncover. There are only various different manifestations of that self. And, if you want to have a self where you sit around and air your dirty laundry, then fine, but you should think over that: does it really help your loved ones understand you more? Is it useful? Or is it just another exercise, another act, one that’s just sloppier, and ugly?

This Was The Week That Was - In Brendan

It was a thin week last week, though it didn't feel that way. But here you go anyway:

The Blabber Beat.
Hot Investment Opportunities For Literary Geeks.
The Super-est of Superheroes.

Every click counts! Plus, if you guys post a comment, it might make the blog gods increase my blog-efficiency. Who knows? It might work.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Logic.

Everybody knows that drunk people are funny. And in general a lot of funny video clips get on YouTube. Why, then, aren't more viral videos of drunk people?

I think it's because drunk people aren't actually funny they just think that they're funny when they're drunk.

Post a comment with actually funny videos of inhibition addled people just to prove me wrong.

Monday, November 12, 2007

What's The Meaning? What's The Point?




The big question: What’s the meaning of life? Put it another way: Why are we here on earth, towards what purpose? If we dare answer our answer will embarrass and disappoint. We are here to reproduce, we might say. We are here to recognize Jesus Christ as our personal savior. We are here to experience eating a flourless chocolate cake.

But wait, even by trying to answer the question – what’s the meaning of life? – we’re jumping the gun a little bit. It may be helpful to look at what we actually mean when we look for a meaning to life. What is it that we’re looking for?

We can find meaning in our everyday actions easily enough. For example, I work so that I can get paid. My work has a reason – money. A more complicated example: The painting is beautiful because the colors are chosen well. (Why this reason is more complicated than the previous, I will leave to the reader – this essay is too packed already). Either way, we can posit meaning for things by seeing them instrumentally, as means to an end. But then we get into a problem so simple it’s boring: if we se everything as defined by something else then we are caught in a circular argument. While it seems sensible to say that I work to make money; why do I make money? Why – to buy stuff. Well, why do I buy stuff? These questions can go on forever. Unless we consider intrinsic good. That is, good that’s good just in itself. There seems to be a point where either you must find a transcendent meaning or else recognize meaning as a tissue-thin bankrupt concept reserved for the illiterate masses.

This is not academic. We want a deeper meaning that transcends our everyday meanings. We work, eat and strive – and we want to understand this working eating and striving as being important. And we need a meaning. More often than not, we will not be satisfied by worldly reasons: we need to find intrinsic or transcendent meaning. I see religion as a smorgasbord of transcendent meaning.

But just look at the variety of transcendent meanings that are proffered to us, and you realize that there is something deeply unsatisfying about any of them. No single explanation for the meaningfulness of life seems, by the lights of the evidence at hand, to be any better suited to a life than any other. We choose one, it seems, randomly. And so the question “What meaning has our lives” becomes a question that makes us laugh at ourselves, say something ironic, and keep on living our lives. We recognize that we’re not going to be able to answer the question satisfactorily, so we tend not to hold up our answers for criticism or thought unless some crisis forces us to.

Yet it is not like we have given up hope for a transcendent meaning. We’ve just stopped expressing our hope. And so we stop being open and critical about what meaning we give our lives.

I believe that there can never be a transcendent meaning to life. That the sensations, events, and stories that build our lives are without meaning beyond the human world. The world is chaotic, there is nothing even close to a providential supernatural order to the universe. Everything beyond human understanding is blind colorless accident, neither good nor evil, nameless and cosmic and ineffable.

Which is not to say that I don’t think life has meaning. I think it does. But it’s just a human meaning, not a transcendent meaning. We force the chaotic explosion of our senses to make sense through acts of story-telling and memory. And it is through these actions that we make our own meaning. There is no other meaning. And that’s okay. But to recognize that is to recognize a fundamental humbleness about the things we think as important.

To make that last point make sense, I’m going to have to flesh out what I mean by telling stories. Which I will do right now, if you manage to hold tight.

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How do we go about making a story out of the events of our lives? Let’s look first at how we remember a particular experience. Out of a mass of sensual data – out of the storm of sights, sounds, smells, and thoughts that assault us every second – we pick out only a selection to form a memory.

I will pick out these sensations with some story in mind. If I have dinner with a friend, and am angry with him, I will remember sensations that back up my feeling of anger. I will give particular credence, say, to his annoying laugh, or to my discomfort. If I am very happy with him, I will chose a different cast of sensations. The point being, what is remembered and what is relegated to forgetfulness depends on what story I want to tell. Memory, far from being some objective recording device, is more of a collaged art-work, a coherent story patched together from a selection of available material.

So, in my reckoning, the very texture of all lived experience is already marked by the will towards narrative. There is no meaningful sensation that we have that comes to our consciousness free from its dependency on story. More importantly, once sensations are understood as more than mere sensations – when we begin to consider them, not as flashes of light or whiffs of air, but as meaningful occurrences like a movie, or the scent of coffee in the morning – we must consider them within the context of the story they are attempting to tell.

So we are creatures driven by the desire to make a narrative of the world, to string together the random occurrences of life in some sensible, artistic string.

But the problem is that often we mess up in our attempts at making a narrative of our experiences. For instance, we can craft a narrative out of a situation that isn’t really appropriate – by selectively choosing particular sensations instead of others, or by self-delusion. Don’t think that this is some silly academic problem, here: think of a boy who has a crush on a girl, and will imagine every little thing the girl does as evidence that she, too, has feelings for him. These narrative delusions are perhaps easy to spot when they are so drastic, but they happen to in innumerable, small and subtle ways: when we are pissed off at the world and take a cashier’s tiredness as haughtiness, when we consider the weather as a mirror of our souls, when we are having a good day and imagine the birds are singing for us.

But even if we succeed in making up narratives that are sensible to ourselves and others, which fit in with the rest of our communities’ reckonings as what makes an acceptable narrative – that is, if we manage to imagine our lives in a more-or-less sensible manner – we have only done half the work in front of us. What’s even more important, and vastly tougher (and a subject for another essay) is how we can make good stories, not just serviceable stories.

But back to the question at hand. Why do we mess up so much? Well, because we are naturally in a bind, as far as existence goes. We like to posit order to things, and reasons. Why? Well, because when we look at the things in our lives and assume that we can rationally understand what they’re doing, we can better interact with them. It’s a super useful tool to have. But the problem is that while we can find small-scale and medium scale reasons (that rock fell because somebody pushed it; she dumped me because I didn’t brush my teeth) we eventually get into a reasoning dead end when we butt our heads against more profound levels of understanding: what’s the reason for It All!? And the sad truth of it is, that the world itself is without reason. Reason only exists within human beings. Something without human interpretation – without a human looking at it and understanding it – that has nothing of reason to it.

But we want things, everything, to have a reason. When we have a bird shit on our heads or are not accepted for a job, it’s hard to accept that as a random meaningless event mostly outside of our control. We want to ascribe meaning to it. The trouble being, that the majority of the things that happen to us are either meaningless or their meaning is obscured to us. We walk into a restaurant and are served by a rude waitress. We would like to understand her rudeness. Maybe she doesn’t like us, maybe she’s a bitch. But the meaning of her mood is most likely forever obscured to us, and therefore resists subsumation into a narrative. This works for large-scale events far better than it does for quotidian ones: it is one of those constant questions of human life why people who are good and kind and constant are not rewarded by the world, while rapacious, mean, and nasty people end up sitting on piles of gold coins, laughing maniacally. Well, it is only a question if you believe that the universe has a meaning above-and-beyond that which human understanding ascribes it: that is, it only becomes a problem if you believe that there should be some reward for goodness, some meaningful pay-off for somebody’s actions.

It may not be terribly comforting to think of your life as having no meaning. I believe that understanding that the only meaning a life has comes from inside it provides a person for an opportunity to consciously craft their own lives, and arrange their sensations, doings, beliefs, and things in an artistic manner.

But that question – we’ll hold off on it for a while. What I want to talk about right now is how this need to make everything into a narrative can actually make people’s lives largely incoherent – or at least inflexible.

Look at how the narrative drive of much of born-again Christianity works. Every random event has meaning by virtue of that event leading to a precipitating revelation in the believer’s life. Lo, and they are saved from the life of sin etc. And their life afterwards is portioned out into careful measured regions of sacred and profane, and while some things may be most definitely good and other’s evil, the real comfort of such overwhelming belief is not of holiness, but of meaning. The evil is not merely insensible, or accidental. It is evil. The good is not just expedient or pleasurable. It is holy. It is immensely comforting, because it explains every single moment of a person’s life, it fills each moment with meaning.

But the problem from this perspective will be apparent to anyone who has fallen on the foul side of the equation: there is a certain rigidity in this zealous meaning that renders the true believer somewhat stubborn, epistemically. But it is this epistemic rigidity that is the comfort of extreme belief.

This applies, not only to born again Christians, but to fundamentalists of many stripes: Marxists as well as Jihadists: Punk kids and heroin addicts as well as gurus and hippies.

The real lesson to be drawn is not that these fundamentalists are evil or annoying or wrong – but that their methods of making memory is not as useful as other methods. In being so strict, they loose out on a flexibility that can give a more flexible thinker comfort and joy. Soon I will write an essay that details another kind of belief and memory fixation: an artistic, or liberated, memory.

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So, to sum up my point: We search for transcendent meaning for our life. But there is no such thing as any particular transcendent meaning. Instead, we construct our lives as great stories. But we have choice as far as these stories go. So there are better and worse ways to organize a life. That’s all.

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Comments welcome, of course. You know – if you made it this far, you deserve to lay a comment down, just to humor us all.

Friday, November 2, 2007

This Week In Brendan

Here's what I've been doing this week, instead of talking with you:

Doing King-Cat (Feature)
An Arithmetic Lesson
Riverbend Continues To Illuminate Impact Of War
Wearable Mosques For Muslim Faithful
Don't Believe The Lie (Even If Your Brain Wants To)

Click on these links. Read the stories. Make witty comments on the stories. These things impress my editors. And then I will get chocolate.