Sunday, September 26, 2010

Slow going . . .

with Pascal Boyer.

Just a brief note of explanation.

I've found Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained to be pretty heavy going. It's good in that it tends to deal pretty systematically with a range of different approached to each of the central questions about religion it treats, but I always get the feeling--the same feeling I got reading Pinker's Blank Slate--that many of the arguments get presented in such a way as they are nothing but epiphenomena of Boyer's own argument.

As in Pinker, there is a veneer of reasonableness and even-handedness that is really disingenuous. So I don't get very far reading before I'm diverted into a) dealing with the actual arguments; b) filling out some of the detail Boyer seems to me to neglect and c) noting the rhetorical strategies he uses to cover up his elisions.

Lastly, I get the feeling that over the course of the book he might return to some topics to treat them in greater detail, so I'm reluctant to attack something I find on page 50 that he addresses on page 150. So, this will probably have to wait to I get all the way through . . .

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Dear America: Grow the F**k Up!

an open letter

Dear America:

Before coming to the real object of this letter, I'd like to reassure you that I am not a "hater." I don't chortle when I read articles about how fat you are, and I don't smile in self-satisfaction when I read that you don't know which continent Somalia is in, or that you think Arafat is an even worse version of trans-fat.

I've always been happy to live in your land of freedom, convinced that a working-class scholarship boy probably could hope for no better chances at life than I've had here. And I've always found foreign affectations and foibles to be even more annoying than yours. So rest assured, I have your best interests at heart, and I always try to think the best of you.

These past few months have been a challenge, though. A couple of years ago you surprised a lot of people by electing a black President, but not me: I knew the open-mindedness you were capable of. But apparently I had forgotten about the fecklessness, cowardice and paranoia that lurked beneath that veneer of open-handed reasonableness. I had forgotten that in spite of your 234 years, you still possess the intellectual and emotional maturity of your average nine-year-old.

Now, granted, things have been tough, and tough times can bring out a cranky streak in the best of us. But watching Velma Hart, a representative, apparently, of your deepest held feelings and thoughts, wail and complain to the President the other day really drove home to me that, you, America, are unfit to rule yourself.

"I've been told that I voted for a man who said he's going to change things in a meaningful way for the middle class. I'm one of those people, and I'm waiting, sir. I'm waiting. I don't feel it yet. . . . I'm exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change that I voted for, and deeply disappointed with where we are right now."

In short, you are still waiting for a parent, or a superhero or God to do the things that only you can do and, while he or she is at it, to do a bunch of things that no one can do. While you just go on doing whatever it is you do.

Well, guess what America? It doesn't work that way. Change isn't made by electing someone whose slogan is change. No elected representative is going to Washington waving a magic wand to make everything better while you watch re-runs on television or post inane observations on Facebook (or write blogs, for that matter). Change comes through work and cost to yourself.

No elected representative has a time machine to undo the dumbass things you and your poorly supervised representatives have done in the past. So, no you haven't just up and left Iraq and Afghanistan, becuase having already invaded and overthrown the governments there you have a moral responsibility to see the transition through. And no, you don't get your money back because you belated think adventurous wars aren't such a good idea. And no, you don't get the money back from the huge deficits run up from the last administration you elected because now you've decided that maybe deficits are a thing to worry about. And yes, you did still have a huge, expensive, nearly cataclysmic economic crisis just two years ago. And, yes, you'll be paying the price for the idiocy of the last ten years or so for some time to come.

The "change" that needs to happen is a change is a change in YOU, America. YOU have to stop thinking that Obama or Palin or tinkerbell is going to save you and make every little thing alright. It ain't going to happen. And you have to stop thinking that the political managers you install are going to work in your interests when you a) have no real conception of what those are; b) you don't do much at all to supervise the activities of these managers; and c) you know so little about what these managers do.

"I am waiting" is frankly a pathetic attitude to take when you are supposedly in charge of yourself. You are waiting for what? The waving the magic wand option being out, as discussed above, what economic tradeoffs look wise to you right now? Oh, you didn't know low taxes came at a cost? Or that you might have to choose between two unpleasant options like deficits or stagnation? Don't like the War in Afghanistan? Well are you willing to take responsibility for what happens when you leave? No, of course you aren't. Don't like torture and the extra-legal detention in Guantanamo? Well, are you willing to live with the consequences of closing the place? Willing to support a prison on the mainland? And trials on the mainland? No, I thought not.

America, you have too long been an absentee landlord in Washington, blissfully ignorant of what's going on there, and swooping in occasionally to kick out a few obvious bad tenants and a few others more-or-less at random. Of course things don't go well with you. In fact, you've gotten way better service than you've deserved over the years. Luckily, the good old boys and girls DO actually seem to feel a bit of paternalistic affection for you in spite of your fecklessness.

But, as I said, tough times do bring out the crankiness in us. America, it is time to grow the fuck up or shut the fuck up. Let Velma know what you decide.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Stone's Fall 2

A disappointing novel, and not at all the "return to form" touted by the publisher. Stone's Fall is a sloppy, half-hearted and poorly planned novel with, really, little point. As adventure it is far too long and far too slow; as an intellectual mystery in the tradition of Name of the Rose, it has little to say of an intellectually stimulating nature.

The first three hundred pages of Stone's Fall consists of slowly developing setup with an unappealing character who has no role (aside from afterthought) in the last 500 pages of the novel. Those last 500 pages have somewhat more in the way of winning characters and plot interest, but there really doesn't seem to be much point to it all. The seeming promise that we'll gain some insight into the "art" behind capital is never delivered on and we're left with a tale of superhuman manipulators, which is frankly far less interesting than a tale of plain old human manipulators.

Reading Stone's Fall, two Neils were strongly called to mind, neither of whom spells it that way. A very long novel that promises to show us something about the workings of international capital can't help but call Neal Stephenson to mind, who explored what he feels are the roots of the modern world system in his Baroque Cycle a few years back.

The comparison in some ways is flattering to Pears--Pears is a far better literary craftsman than Stephenson--he can create believable characters and write good dialog and move a story along without being too obvious with his stagecraft, all of which Stephenson has great problems with in his Baroque Cycle. But one thing that Stephenson has that Pears' novel sorely lacks is a sense of brio and intellectual insight.

The other Neil this novel brought to mind is Niall Ferguson, who has been much concerned in his historical writing with this period and with the same developments which set the stage for this novel--the formation of international capital , imperialist power struggle, and WWI, which is only on the horizon of Stone's Fall, but importantly so.

But with all these great elements at play, about which Ferguson is just full of interesting interpretations, Pears manages nothing much, except perhaps to say that capitalism is about buying cheap and selling dear, and that, ultimately, someone has to bear the burden of being on the wrong side of those deals. And even this delivered weakly.

Too bad really.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Back to Boyer

For a long time, people used to think that the brain was a rather simple organ. Apart from the bits that control the body machinery, there seemed to be a vast empty space in the young child's mind destined to be filled with whatever education, culture and personal experience provided. This view of the mind was never too plausible, since after all the liver and the gut are much more complex than that. But we did not know much about the way minds develop, so there were no facts to get in the way of this fantasy of a "blank slate" where experience could leave its imprint. The mind was like those vast expanses of unexplored Africa that old maps used to fill with palm trees and crocodiles. Now we know more about minds. We do not know everything, but one fact is clear: the more we discover about how minds work, the less we believe in this notion of a blank slate. Every further discovery in cognitive science makes it less plausible as an explanation. (3)
Back to Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained . . . then above passage from quite early on in the book.

This a pretty bad start on things. For one thing, Boyer is immediately sallying forth into an area that really doesn't have much to do with his topic. The history of attitudes toward human nature is just not fundamental to the topic of what religion is. He might just start by saying something like "The explanations put forward in this book assume that the human brain is an evolved entity, with certain inherent tendencies which . . ."

Instead we get the Blank Slate straw man. Why straw man? Because the man who proposed the idea, back in 1690, didn't think human beings had no inherent nature. he thought they had no inherent ideas. Durkheim, another supposed "blank slate" proponent specifically rejects the idea. And of course, before 1690, Western thought was dominated by precisely the opposite sorts of notions--that certain ideas were innate, that man had a fallen nature from birth, etc., etc.

So for a long time, since the beginning of the time we began thinking about what the nature of our minds or souls or brains was, the question has been dominated by the notion that in has a fairly specific nature, not by the fantasy of a "blank slate." In fact, this line of inquiry has been pretty heavily distorted by interested assertions as to what that specific nature is.

What Boyer really means to say here is that, for a few decades, the idea has been prevalent in anthropological circles that the contents of our brains are determined by our cultures, not by any inherent characteristics and that he and his book are part of the reaction against that prevalent notion.

There is nothing world-historically innovative in the idea that our brains have an inherent nature. This is the dominant line of thinking on this matter generally. It always has been.

The fantasy of a blank slate is today far less common that the fantasy of its absolute dominance in recent thought.

So why begin the book with the idea of some "Blank Slate" demon at large in the intellectual streets? Because what we are about to read will only impress when set against a backdrop of the most abject ignorance? ("Well, this is all pretty commonplace, but at least it is better than what those veritable flat-earthers think over there . . .)

Or maybe it's just a declaration of allegiance with the contemporary forces of expansionist science? Or maybe its just a failure of perspective from someone who has spent too much time in academic infighting. Or too much time in France.

I think the answer is probably one of the latter options, but nevertheless, it's a bad start to a book that as least pretends at a broad and objective attempt to explain religion.