Thursday, July 31, 2008

hot recap action


  • Why democracy?  [more like why not not]
  • What is an indivisible?  [excuse me: individual]
  • Is it un-American for our leaders to talk about God?  [yeah, basically]
  • Do you identify with the Joker?  [it doesn't mean you're crazy]
  • Have your loved ones turned into ghost monsters? [no]

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

what I believe

At the memorial service for my grandfather, which was held in a synagogue (out of respect for the wishes of family members other than my grandparents, note), I realized something, or re-realized it, or completed the realization that had begun moments after I got word that he had died:

I don't believe in an afterlife.

This shouldn't have been news: I've never believed in anything like that.  But of course there's belief and then there's belief, and often the beliefs we have are positions taken, in opposition to other people's positions, and it's hard to tell what our statements of belief actually represent—whether they're a larger part statement or belief.  And one thing I can tell you for sure is that my response to the details of traditional religious belief has rarely been entirely level-headed: I feel threatened* by the dominance of the religious worldview in our society, threatened by what strikes me as not just irrational but essentially arbitrary (or, worse, blindly accepting), and so I lash back, attack, I get mad, argumentative.  I protest too much, you could say.  In short, although I didn't think this a few weeks ago, explicitly, my attitude toward the question of a Heaven or Hell, e.g., was just a few degrees too heated and oppositional to inspire confidence as to the actual security of my beliefs.

But so then when I sat there trying to process that my grandfather had died, was dead—and especially when the cantor (no rabbi), not following instructions as closely as I might have hoped, name-dropped God and said something, I don't remember exactly what, about what happened to my grandfather or to his soul after leaving his body—I suppose the emotion outweighed the social anxiety and the combativeness of the alienated or oppressed, and I realized without the usual belligerence or heat that this shit just means absolutely nothing to me.

I sat there trying to think, to get myself to think, "What happened to him when he died?"—and while that struck me and strikes me as a pretty good question, the experience of dying,** I found that the idea that his soul or spirit went somewhere or experienced some kind of [unmetaphorical] transformation just wasn't in the cards, plain and simple—no more than the idea that he has been reincarnated as an octopus, or that he might end up stacking books in my living room or sliming me with ectoplasm like in Ghostbusters.

Do I know for sure that he isn't sitting on a cloud with a harp or pushing a boulder up a mountain while being prodded with pitchforks?  Well, no.  I also don't know that I'm not a brain in a jar or on The Truman Show.  But I found out that I simply don't believe it.  And upon later reflection, I'm glad to have found this out—not just because it's a relief to learn that something I thought I believed seems to be something I actually really do believe (lending me a kind of integrity, not in the sense of character but of unification and soundness of construction—although that, too), but also because, taking it a step further, it leads me to suspect, hopefully, maybe a little optimistically, that maybe I'm beginning to grow up, finally...?


* Not without cause.
** ...but not a great question.  It's always seemed to me that we know what it's like to lose consciousness, more or less, and that although none of us who are alive have ever lost it and then never at any later point regained it, the question that arises there feels like one of those deceptive mind-fucks that serve to create an illusion of a problem where none legitimately arises, like the thing about the three guys who split a motel room for $30 but then get a $5 refund because the room was shit, and they each take $1 and give the bellboy the other $2 as a tip for having done something that, oops, I left out of the story, but so then they each put in $10 to begin with and got $1 back, so that's $9 each or $27 total, and plus the $2 tip that's $29, but so then where the fuck's the other $1??  Yes, to that I'm comparing the afterlife.

Monday, July 28, 2008

identifying with the Joker

So The Dark Knight was good.  This is not news.  And/but when I saw it two weeks ago, I left the theater feeling bad, like actually affected by it for a while after, in a way that reminded me of the way I felt after reading Blood Meridian, a kind of despair about humanity, a darkness... the Judge–Joker comparison is more counterintuitive than it is wrong, the Judge who feels that that which exists without his knowledge exists without his consent, and that the birds in the sky and all living things that fly around free are insults to his, what was it, sovereignty?  I even found myself comparing Ledger's Joker to Iago and invoking the mighty Bloom's idea (which I'm pretty sure I didn't quite get) about foregrounding, the way the Joker's character is bigger than what we see of it, the way we never really find out his story and know only that what he says about where he got his scars is all lies, or at least some of it lies...  The genius of the character—whether it's Ledger who did it or the Nolans or both together or what—is that he's not just an incredible villain but is somehow human and real, which is what makes him truly scary.  And being one of the seven people in the country who are actual literature fans, I'm fucking serious when I make any kind comparison between a movie and a serious novel.  Correction: it's not so much that The Dark Knight as a whole is so great.  It's the Joker.

So, yes, the Joker scared me.  I don't mean I was scared when watching the movie, scared somebody was going to come get me, cut my face open, blow up my ferry.  I was scared in a deeper, more abstract way—that despair I mentioned.  And maybe what scared me most of all (and what speaks most highly of the movie itself, not just the character) is that in at least some of the key Batman–Joker scenes, I did not quite feel that the Batman was better than the Joker.

[Pause for clarity: there is a difference between the rhetorical sense of a film or movie (or joke, often, most of all) and its literal meaning (fabula/syuzhet, maybe?).*  I hope it goes without saying that I find the Joker's actions to be ethically unacceptable;** I'm referring to a level a few deeper than plot or the judging of actions.]

So why is it that I found myself identifying somehow more with the Joker than with the Batman?—severe sociopathy aside, I mean.

It might be as simple as that the Batman isn't a real character, isn't a human being, whereas the Joker really is, somehow.  It might be that Bruce Wayne is too perfect, fake, or flat.

But what makes the Joker so scary?  As I recall, characters in the film point out how scary it is that his motives are so unclear.  (Or am I thinking of the Wheelchair Assassins in Infinite Jest?  No matter...)  He doesn't want money, he doesn't seem to want power, particularly...he doesn't even exactly want to kill Batman, it seems at the end.

This is where it hits me that, again, from that rhetorical standpoint (as opposed to the literal), there's something a little uncomfortable about the fact that in Batman we basically have a super-affluent vigilante, an upper-class hero, fighting the criminal underclasses...and the Joker isn't fighting back so much as he is challenging the entire dichotomy.  He doesn't just steal money (any poor person could steal money in an effort to become rich, but he still wouldn't know which silverware to use with which course—take that, Gatz!***)—he fucking burns it!****  A class-warrior is scary to the The Man, but someone who rejects the entire dialectic is arguably much scarier.

Paul Fussel in his nasty, enjoyable little book Class argues that much of what defines the "non-U" classes is envy for the higher-ups, but he talks about a "Class X" that exists outside of the system...a bohemian, artsy type...  As the Fashion Futurist reminded me, all of the Joker's clothes are custom made—in a way, the ultimate symbol of his horrifying opposition to society is a kind of opting out: the ultimate villain doesn't shop!

So, again, step back, squint your eyes enough that things blur a little, forget the murder and the violence and sociopathy, and you can see how maybe part of the reason I found myself identifying more with the Joker than with our billionaire-playboy "dark knight" was that he was outside of society somehow, questioning it, challenging it, the ultimate nonconformist, unthreatened by its devices of control, several steps ahead of its machinations and defenses, thinking so much for himself that his very thoughts are the stuff of Gotham's nightmares, content and specifics aside...an artist...

Whip out my copy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men—"Every fury on earth has been absorbed in time, as art, or as religion, or as authority in one form or another.  The deadliest blow the enemy of the human soul can strike is to do fury honor.  Swift, Blake, Beethoven, Christ, Joyce, Kafka, name me a one who has not been thus castrated.  Official acceptance is the one unmistakable symptom that salvation is beaten again...Get a radio or a phonograph capable of the most extreme loudness possible, and sit down to listen to a performance of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony or of Schubert's C-Major Symphony...Turn it on as loud as you can get it.  Then get down on the floor and jam your ear as close to the loudspeaker as you can get it...Is what you hear pretty? or beautiful? or legal? or acceptable in polite or any other society?  It is beyond any calculation savage and dangerous and murderous to all equilibrium in human life as human life is; and nothing can equal the rape it does on all that death..."


* As when in Dirty Harry the bad guy whose rights were being protected was a horrible child-molesting murderer who was going to hijack a school bus as soon as he was released—which of course within the reality of the movie you think, "Wow, it sucks that this guy walked free," whereas stepping back you might think, "Wait, shouldn't accused criminals still have rights?"
** "Please understand, gentle reader, I am all for creating hassle and headaches for the Empire..."
*** My favorite line in Gatsby, probably: "An Oxford man! ... Like hell he is!  He wears a pink suit!"
**** ...with someone on top of the pile, by the way.  Did anyone else notice how much cutting-away and pulling punches there was in an otherwise fairly brutal movie?

Saturday, July 26, 2008

the meantime

Don't start tearing off your own face like in Poltergeist.*  Alt85 will be back before you know it.

Here's an interesting video to tide you over.


* Tear off somebody else's face.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

no gods allowed

While going through that pile of New York Review-sies, I read the beginning of a review of Martha C. Nussbaum's Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America's Tradition of Religious Equality (May 15, 2008).  In it, reviewer Kent Greenawalt identifies the four "crucial question[s] about religion and government"; the fourth and "least understood" is "the explanations citizens and officials offer for their political positions."  As Greenawalt puts it, "Should everyone rely on 'public reasons,' not private faith, when they take part in the political processes of liberal democracies?"

Is it a problem, in other words, if George W. Bush reports that God spoke to him and said, "George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq"?  Must a politician's motives be secular?*

Anyway, after identifying the very good question, Greenawalt gets just a little stupid.

Making the reasonable point that "relying on...religious principles" does not "necessarily promote [a] religion" (which, if it did, would probably mean it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, is the reason he brings it up), Greenawalt writes:

"Suppose someone supports a law to assure a more tolerable existence for animals raised for human consumption because she believes God made other animals not purely for human benefit but as independently valuable creatures deserving a decent level of care.  In supporting the law she does not impose her religious views"—OK, OK, I don't think it's as clear as his language suggests, but OK so far, fine, fine—semicolon—"rather she uses her deep understanding of reality to protect creatures that deserve protection" [emphasis mine].

Whaaaa??

Look, I agree that animals deserve humane treatment.**  But what about believing you know how God wants you to treat them merits Greenawalt's unqualified praise—a "deep understanding of reality"?  First of all, I'm not a Bible-is-truth man myself, but I seem to remember something about our being given "dominion" over all animals.  So where does Greenawalt's hypothetical someone get the idea that God thinks we need to be nice to them?  Where does the given reason come from and what could it mean?

Again, I certainly think we do need to be nice to animals (insofar as we have to do anything).  I'm just curious about our friend's profound familiarity with God's will.  And I'm not just being argumentative: I think this careless thinking on Greenawalt's part is directly relevant to the question at hand.

The reason I give, as a leader, for pushing for a law (or for vetoing one sent forward by elected representatives of the people) is important.  And if that reason is based on a fairy tale—even more so if it is based on my own special interpretation of a fairy tale, and especially if the interpretation in question can be explained or justified no further than "I just believe it"***—then we may have a problem.

Greenawalt's ability to identify a private statement of cosmic truth (more specifically, the conscious will of a divine being) as "deep" reveals a tremendous blind spot.  It appears that the absolute protection of religious belief from rational inspection is axiomatic in his worldview**** (appears so, at least, from the paragraph in question; Greenawalt isn't the point here); that in itself is unacceptable in our kind of government, where unless the people are nothing but tools for demagogues and liars, the decisions of our public officials must be open to rational examination and criticism.

Now, of course, "God wants us to be nice to animals" could have all sorts of meanings.  Buber says God is "not a metaphysical idea, nor a moral ideal, nor a projection of a psychic or social image, nor anything at all created by, or developed within, man," and just as lots of rules (NO RIDING BICYCLES INTO POOL) are obviously records of things people have done, Buber has basically given us a list of ways people do see God—and even his is a lot less literal, I think, than you might imagine given the sentiment.

So I'm going to go ahead and say two things are possible in Greenawalt's example:

  1. "What God wants" in this case is essentially or effectively a metaphor, just a way of saying "What is morally right" and easily translatable into any moral language, in which case it can be evaluated purely on the basis of the sentiment and the use of religious language is window dressing and not a problem, or
  2. "What God wants" assumes a common language, assumes that we're all talking about the same God—or assumes that it doesn't matter whether you "know" about the "real" God—in which case it pretty well obviously does violate the...
I am out of time.  You know where that sentence was going.  Why do we always have to finish our sentences, for God's sake?

In conclusion, I ask only this: which of the two options above seems best to describe our country?


* Of course the whole question is irrelevant from a strictly pragmatic standpoint: we aren't going to go from its being impossible for an atheist to be president to its being impossible for a religionist to be president.  The cliché "No jury would convict you" is actually pretty scary, if you really sit down and think about it, because basically what it points out are the ways in which public opinion, bias, and prejudice can sometimes just stop justice dead in its tracks, like a brick wall, if the two are at odds...
** Humane in the context of animals isn't actually even the near-miss oxymoron it might appear to be: it seems human "really" just means earthling...so your beloved dog really is human!  (No, he's not.)
*** Or, even worse, "I know it to be true"—or, worst of all, "The truth of it is self-evident, and could be doubted only by an infidel"—o-or, no, even worse than that, just a half-step logically further, "We can tell who is good and bad based on who agrees with what I say"!
**** And, as Sam Harris points out in The End of Faith, the distinction between religious belief and paranoid–schizophrenic delusion is a lot more arbitrary than public opinion would be morally outraged if you didn't have it: "We have names for people who have many beliefs for which there is no rational justification.  When their beliefs are common we call them 'religious'; otherwise, they are likely to be called 'mad,' 'psychotic,' or 'delusional.'...Clearly, there is sanity in numbers.  And yet, it is merely an accident of history that it is considered normal in our society to believe that the Creator of the universe can hear your thoughts, while it is demonstrative of mental illness to believe that he is communicating with you by having the rain tap in Morse code on your bedroom window..."

Friday, July 18, 2008

who are "the people"?

In general what I like so much about Indo-European roots is the way they can, like poetry, illuminate a word anew for us, afresh (ahoy!*).  For example, the discovery that the word doubt has the same root as the number two has, I think, a cool effect on our understanding of what doubt is—almost makes the word itself a kind of self-contained micro-poem (like Joyce's phoenish).

So but I found the root of demos- (the people in a democracy) to be a little abstruse, connection-to-the-word-in-question–wise: frustratingly unilluminating.  What mysterious stringy neural cord (yuck!) might connect division to the people?  All I could could come up with was that the people are the building blocks of society, that we're what civilization is divisible into...or something.

Well, I mentioned the question to someone—you know, one of the people—and he said, without hesitation, "Individual."  Sure enough, individual means not [in-] divisible**—so, yeah, basically a person is the place where you can divide no further: the divvying-up stops here.  And that does add a little kind of poetic justification to the notion of democracy, somehow, doesn't it?


* Pardon me.
** The American Heritage Dictionary's Indo–European appendix has really let me down, here, though:  I just can't seem to trace divide any further back than the Latin videre (to separate) [not to mention the problem that we seem to have a double-negative kind of a problem on our hands, because isn't the di- in divide a negative?—in which case indivisible would mean not not separable?  I hope I'm wrong because, if not, this is most non-, non-non-, non-heinous!].  This person (along with others I found on Google) identifies a root weidh- (maybe widh-), which he or she very interestingly connects to a Sanskrit word meaning lonely or solitary, a Greek word meaning unmarried man, a Latin word meaning bereft or void, and our own widow, but which I just can't find in the damned AHD!  (Maybe this?)  I guess it really is true: life is pain.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

power to the people

Democracy is one of those words that are at risk of losing their meanings.

[Side note / example: just as the Pro-Choice and Pro-Life movements picked names that are themselves (the names) primarily rhetorical and reasonably misleading and manipulative,* the Democratic Party and the Republican Party might as well be called the American Party and the United States Party for all their names do to distinguish meaningfully between them.**]

[I'm going to color-code this next sentence in an attempt to make it easier to skip the side notes if you don't like 'em...I'd love to have footnotes within footnotes like DFW (not Dallas–Fort Worth), but Blogger ain't having none of it.]

A democracy is a state in which the power [interestingly enough, kratos descends from a word meaning hard,*** and its cousins include standard, careen, and cancer,**** gotta be some kind of poetic sense in there somewhere] is in the hands not of the wealthy (those who "overflow") [pluto-]the nobility (those who're put together the best, more or less) [aristo-]GOD (with, of course, a sacerdotal élite there to interpret for Him) [theo- again], or fæces [cacocracy...just made it up because I'm seven years old—but the good news is we all just learned that the caco- in cacophony actually does come from cacadoody!]but rather the people (those comprised by [by which I mean those who make up, are the parts of—look it up] society*****) [demo-,****** line over the e].

[That was stupid.  Never again.  There's gotta be a better way...]

OK, so plenty of people have talked about how democracy seems to have come to refer not to a system of government but to a set of values not even particularly centered around the concept of power in the hands of the people—for example, everyone in this country seems to want democracy to spread across the globe, and yet I think very few would agree that it's acceptable for the people of Iraq to decide that America is their arch-enemy now or anything like that (just as polls, I've heard, often show that Americans agree with the Bill of Rights if they know it's the Bill of Rights but tend to disapprove strongly if it's rephrased)—such that the cynics among us might begin to suspect that democracy is a word meaning "the American way" rather than itself being the American way (democracy is American rather than the other way around)—such that what instead of being the benevolent spreaders of a helpful ideal, we're, whoops, maybe kind of an empire all of a sudden...?

But so, OK, what is democracy?  I mean, what's the point?  Why democracy, I guess is what I'm trying to say.  Why democracy?  As the Troubled Young Knight argues in L'Attaque des clones,******* a democracy is slow and inefficient, and sometimes a firm confident hand would be at least more effective (just as the Dark Side is flashier and easier, such that it might seem to be more powerful, too, better, superior...), so why are we so hot on it?  Is it that we think the people will make better decisions than an autocrat [autos = self, if you're interested]?  Any autocrat?  Really?  The most brilliant and ethical person in the world, give that person control of all world decisions, you don't think we might be better off?  O-or what if we give that power to you?  You'd surely do a better job, wouldn't you?

Almost done, here.

My feeling about democracy goes a little something like this [hit it!]:

  1. indispensable
  2. infuriating

I don't believe that the people make good decisions.  My father once told me (and then told me again and again and again) that "normal people have an IQ of 100 and vote for Ronald Reagan."  The sort of thing that you might think would lead people to rebel against authority often seems to lead them instead into the open arms of Fascists (see Escape from Freedom).  And, frankly, if God knocked on my door and said, "Hey, you know that election coming up in November?  McCain or Obama, your call," I would not tell him to fuck off and let the American people decide—I don't think I'd even have to think too hard about it—because I am quite confident that McCain will be terrible for America and Obama will be good for America, and if the American people disagree, then fuck 'em.  Democracy is unfriendly to civil rights—in fact, one of the main functions of our Constitution, arguably, is to limit the power of the people.  Pure democracy generally ought to mean minorities get crushed or, at best, ignored.  If it had been put up to a vote, the Civil Rights movement wouldn't have gotten very far.

So?  Why indispensable?

I always think of that line about our judicial system, the explanation for "innocent until proven guilty" that someone gave (ah, Blackstone, it turns out), which I remember as: "Better to let 10 guilty men go free than to, you know, throw some innocent dude in jail or something."  [Fine, follow the Blackstone link.]  My feeling is that it is better to let the people make shitty decisions than to allow them to be oppressed.  Incidentally, that's why my support for democracy is actually ultimately consistent with my skepticism about it: democracy is necessary because of the importance of human rights, so wherever democracy is in opposition to human rights, intervention is a must.

Just came up with that right now.  Huh.  What do you think?

I'll be goddamned if I'm going to proofread all this.


* Pro-Lifers are not opposed to choice per se; Pro-Choicers are not in favor of death.
** The -public in republic means just about what you'd think it means: basically a republic is a state in which power is held by the people, which definition you might remember when I hit you with the meaning of democracy below.  Er, above.
*** Phallogocentrism, anyone?
**** Also eukaryote!—which it turns out is eu- [which itself means good if you go way back, and—yikes—is a great-great-uncle to swastika, gahhhh (pulls nervously at collar)] + karuotos [line over the second O], meaning "having nuts," HAW!
***** Compare to Hitler and friends, who (as Umberto Eco points out in an old article in The New York Review of Books that I can't link to) love to speak for the people and specifically argue that a single representative of the people, really (magically?) speaking in or as their voice, is a much better way for their will to be realized than some actual democracy or republic, which of course is bound to be all messy [see next footnote].
****** Damn, the Indo keeps hitting me with these nasty revelations: first swastika comes from good [see above], now the demo- in democracy turns out to be a cousin to the demo- in demon, which suggests that a good capital for a democracy would be Pandæmonium...which itself, once you lose the demon part and slide back down to what the word means now, is actually more or less accurate and speaks to what I'm ultimately (I hope) going to make my slow circuitous way around to...
******* which I saw about 100 times when it came out in Paris, even though it was bad, because I was lonely, OK??—and also brainwashed as a child...  And while we're down here in Footnote Land, let me note too that what the T.Y.K. has to say (coming up, above) is pretty much exactly Hitler's point (as mentioned a few footnotes above)...also the Bush Republicans' point, and Kissinger's (probably), about why the president doesn't need Congress's permission to go to war.

re-kaput, head again

Double recap this time because last time I guess I forgot what the point of a recap was and made it hard to understand (when the aforementioned point is to simplify, God I'm so STUPID, STUPID)...

OK!!

Oh the times we've had together!  We—

  • talked about grammar, man, and found out that cute little baby laughs are actually just high-pitched sped-up scary old man laughs! [no, really, it's all true!];
  • poked holes in pornography, dude, for real, and it was crazy, we saw how girlswearingstereoheadphones.com and sexywomeneatingcookies.net* bring us one step closer to a Matrix-style nightmare reality! [please let it just be a dream!]; and
  • waged a one-way war against beloved writer Michael Chabon! [you are wrong to like him!]. 
And before that, oh my God, we totally—
  • explained why Obama's still our man even if he did, you know, pull off his human-being mask for a second and let us see his horrible politician's lizard face! [he doesn't really have a lizard face];
  • fed your terrifying and ultimately insatiable craving for Indo–European roots, baby (and don't even get me started on that em-dash, girl, damn)! [hahah, Indo];
  • whined like babies about how you can't have your words and letters look exactly the way you want them to! [but, oooh, does it burn my toast, grrrr!];
  • got too hot for Coolio with our out-of-left-field sneak attack on The Amazing Adventures of Boring & Trite! [any book that everybody likes can't be all good!];
  • somehow connected fandom, religion, æsthetic taste, and the very deepest and most important choices in our lives, name-dropping the Strokes and Yahweh in a single post and identifying the central philosophical problem of our time! [that's all you get]; and
  • took a picture of something somebody wrote on a subway ad for an Eddie Murphy movie that I guess was already released but made so little of a splash that it ought to be an Olympic diver! [hug balls?]

Whew!  And more, more, more to come, for real, I'm telling you!!!

* I don't think these sites exist...but they should.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

grammarsluts Q'n'F'n'A

Q. What's the difference between me and I, really?
A. The difference is NOT that I is a fancier version of me—a painfully common mistake for which I blame that wily ol' predicate nominative: we know that the actor affecting a British accent on the television show would say, "It is I," so we figure the one pronoun's just inherently more "educated" than the other.  Hence "Come with John and I," or "Between you and I..."  For the record, Julian Casablancas, it's between you and me.
     No, the difference between me and I is that the one is an object, the other a subject.  Incidentally, this is also the difference between whom and who (another duo that many think can be broken down into the Fancy and Not-as-Fancy categories).  Who and whom are particularly tricky because even people who know the difference in theory can get screwed up by the words' roles in various subordinate clauses and by, again, our mischievous friend the predicate nominative...
     My advice: when in doubt, just use who and me.  Like a stopped clock, you'll be right at least sometimes, and when you're wrong you'll just sound as if you made a mistake, not as if you're a pretentious ignoramus.

Q. Do I feel bad or do I feel badly?
A. Well, have you suffered nerve damage?  Are you on anæsthetic drugs?  If not, you probably feel bad.  "I feel badly" is a mistake for which I'm inclined to blame the adjective well, as in "I feel well" (English–English translation: "I feel healthy").  People hear the word well and figure it's an adverb.
     Here's the deal, people.  The word well means in a good way when it's an adverb and healthy when it's an adjective—just as the word ill means sick when it's an adjective and in a bad way when it's an adverb (as in ill-conceived).
     I'm sorry if you feel bad about that, but at least you can feel.

Q. What's the difference between less and fewer?
A. The difference between less and fewer is pretty much the same as the difference between much and many.  Can you count the thing or things in question?  (Better question: could GOD?)  Then take some away and you've got fewer.  Otherwise, it's less.  How much milk is there?  This much.  Oops, I drank some: now there's less.  How many cookies are there?  This many.  Oops, I ate some: now there are fewer.
     And don't give me any of that "two pints of milk" baloney: then the question is how many pints, not how much milk.  The reason I bring up the G-man is that some people make the mistake of saying, "Well, you can't count the grains of sand on the beach, so it must be less," when the question isn't whether you can count them but whether they're theoretically countable.  (Of course, as with milk, if you were asking how much sand instead of how many grains of sand, you'd be rockin' it less-style.)  If GOD stratched a couple trillion atoms out of existence with a gynormous divine thumbnail, there would be fewer atoms in the universe than there were before, not less.
     Advanced: time, money, distance, and other such wacky shit—neither whole nor divisible into obviously or easily agreed-upon units of measurement (e.g., with time, are we talking centuries, hours, seconds, nanoseconds...?)—you actually have less of, not fewer: less than $10 (because the question is how much it costs, how much money, not how many dollars), less than 15 minutes (because the question is how long, how much time, not how many minutes), less than 300 yards (because...well, you get it).

I know that some people do not find grammar interesting.  For them I offer this video of a baby laughing in slow-motion:



Sunday, July 13, 2008

But what is sexytime, really, if you stop and think about it?

[The is in the title of this post should be italicized.]

This post is about pornography.  I want to get that out there right away so you don't get turned away by the green smoothie.

Lately, for breakfast, I have been ingesting "green smoothies."  Here's how it works: you put soy milk, apple juice, bananas, blueberries, flaxseed, and spinach in a blender, man; you blend the everlovin' shit out of it; and then you drink it!

And what, you might ask, does this have to do with pornography?

According to my layman's understanding of Freud, there are three main things you can do with an impulse: indulge, repress, or sublimate.  So if a 21st-century man wells up with violent caveman lust for a passing woman, he could—

  1. hit her in the head with his club and drag her back to his cave, so to speak—rape her, in short [indulgence];
  2. go back to the cave alone for some good old-fashioned self-flagellation—which in this case I mean literally, or at least not as a sexual euphemism—or, maybe, more to the point, he could deny up and down, even to himself, that he has anything but the purest G-rated feelings and probably work up a reasonable froth of self-righteousness about the kind of horrible animals whose feelings edge toward PG-13, maybe even seeing the woman in question as an evil and whorish, a satanic temptress [repression]; or
  3. enter into an open, respectful, caring relationship with her, maybe get married, make babies, have friends over for dinner—plenty of sex, no hitting-over-the-head with a club [sublimation].

I'm pretty sure I have this at least slightly wrong, but Freud's not the point here.  The point is the application of the general idea to other things such as...well, pornography, yes, but, before we get to that, also—

Exercise!  Exercise is not just good for you...  Scratch that.  Start over.  Exercise is something that (in a very basic way that may smell counterintuitive because of the basic laziness of our culture*) we're essentially desperate to do—not consciously, I mean, or even unconsciously, but rather, what's the word, existentially?  Look at us as whole mind+body creatures (fuck Descartes), throw in maybe a pinch of the idea (articulated in Fromm's Man for Himself) that the best-and-only ethical thing for us to do is the full expression of our potential (i.e. pretty much be human), and it starts to become clear that we, as physical animals, need to fuckin' get physical.  Yeah?  So but now what do we do with the need (a kind of lower- [upper-?] level want) to get some exercise?

Wait wait...forgot the smoothie.

Just as I was saying about our need / whole-human desire for exercise, nutritious food is something that we not just need but can say on at least one interesting level that we really really want.  (That's why we like junk food, reportedly: the theory goes that we're programmed to freak out and eat like crazy when we come across fruit, which is sweet, and our invention of even sweeter food very simply tricks our program...like [here comes a bad analogy] if you taught someone to eat mushrooms and neglected to inform him that some mushrooms are poisonous.)

Pornography coming up before too long, keep your panties on.**

So what do we do with our call it in this case a desire to eat good-for-you foodstuffs?  We repress, as I did up until about a year ago, eating plants only very rarely and living on a pizza–cookie–ice cream diet, with bacon and eggs representing just about the very height of healthy eating; we indulge, eating big old salads all the time, which in my case and I think many others' would involve a significant amount of very real sacrifice and discipline; or we sublimate, the medicine-in-the-ice-cream solution [N.B.: that's a metaphor, not an example], figuring out a way to eat nutritious foods in delicious formats—just as I eat my disgusting spinach in a delicious banana-and-blueberry-flavored form.

Popeye was a big commercial.

With me so far?  So!  Pornography!

No no wait: exercise first!  Our need to exercise probably comes from our need to hunt, fight, run around, whatever.  So what's the repression/indulgence/sublimation breakdown?  (I recognize, by the way, that the analogy is weak, but I'm sticking with it, God damn it!)  Repression: why exercise when you could sit on your ass and look at pornography?  [Wait for it!]  Indulgence: hunt, fight, run around.  Sublimation: sports.

Here's where it gets interesting.  What's running on a treadmill?  I submit that it is not analogous (in our weak analogy) to sublimation.  I submit that it is a weird and very poor substitute: better than nothing but somehow very sorry and sad.  We need to move around, so we get on a machine that simulates real action, mice in wheels.  

And this is how we get to my problem with pornography.  I don't think it's immoral in the Puritanical sense or unethical in either the gender-wars sense of its being bad for relationships or the human-rights sense of its exploiting women (some surely does, but I deny that exploitation is inherent in pornography); I do think it might be unethical in that Frommy sense [like Spidey sense? –ed.] discussed above.

Because what are you doing when you're looking at pornography?  You're responding to a natural impulse not by indulging, repressing, or even sublimating it, but by stimulating it artificially.  You're like those bikers in Triplets of Belleville, pedaling furiously down the projected road; you're a brain in a jar, a monkey baby hanging on chicken wire***, one of the Brave New World test-tube centuplets on a VPS****; you're like the last human being in the universe, satisfying his need for human contact—for friendship, for closeness—by confiding in a well-programmed robot.

* Of course ours is not just a lazy culture but also you might say (if you were eight years old in 1986) a spaz culture—just the kind of doublethink-friendly combo we find in apple-pie American porno-Puritanism.
** Yes yes yes yes it's a run-on OK.
*** Thank you Mr. Yazbek for the word choice.
**** Violent Passion Surrogate.

Friday, July 11, 2008

I mean, come on.

So I've been gradually making my way, in no particular order, through this great pile of unread New York Review of Books...ses...?*—that has/have** accumulated over the course of the year...and so but God damn if I don't come upon a book review written by good old Michael Chabon (May 1, 2008)!

I made it through the first sentence.

"The protagonists of Richard Price's first four novels suffer from the fatal weakness of character known to moralists, comedians, writers of tragedy, and bullshit artists as New York City."

Isn't that just adorable?  Isn't it just so clever and cute?

He almost lost me at "bullshit artists"—such a facile twist, a real dud—but boy was I glad I stuck it through to the incredible finish.  The "bullshit artists" alone would have been merely annoying; the sentence in its fully realized idiocy is a glorious infuriating thrill I wouldn't have wanted to miss.

I mean, I could go on about it, but the problem here really just comes down to this: New York City is not a weakness of character that one can suffer from.  Yes, yes, it's figurative language, yes, I get it, thank you.  But figurative language has to work: it has to make sense (which, by the way, is why mixed metaphors are a problem: it's not just a natural law or some arbitrary rule written in stone with a lightning bolt).

Let me just ask you this:

If someone came up to you and said, "I have one big character flaw: New York City," would you not want to punch him in the mouth?  Just a little?


[To be fair, I'm sure I wouldn't be so negative about this...this surely very nice man...if he weren't so near-universally praised.  It's that damned public-opinion effect.]


* How do you make The New York Review of Books plural?  New York Reviews...?  May be simply that referring to an issue of the Economist as "an Economist" is actually basically just slang, i.e., there is no proper way to make it plural.  Huh?  What?

** The Reviewseses?  The pile?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Girls like when it big

[special thanks to Christian Crane, who I understand is Hart Crane's great-grandson, and from whose masterful poem* I chose the title of this crypto-RECAP.]


Your main organis too small.  Tired of loosing control in bad.  Don't worry we know the solution of this trouble.  Try these strategies and you will become a king of bad.  A key from her bedroom is in your pants!

[sex jokes in bold for your easy digestion]

  1. ...what is low raise and support; / That...you may assert Eternal Providence, / And justify the ways of Obama to men... [Obamadicy.]
  2. se-sow, as in those wild oats—Kriss Kringle right down that aviary's chimney, y'all, awww yeah!  [fun with etymons]
  3. Lay some pipe on that e in se- above.  [italicize this]
  4. More like Cha-boner!  HAW!  [flatulent poison-green baloney]**
  5. Um . . . SEX!!! [worshipping at the temple]
  6. Put Eddie Murphy in your butt. [vandalism: always funny]

Grow up your Love Banana.  All girls LIKE BIG.



* Girls like when it big
by Christian Crane
[VIA E-MAIL]

Try new way of big daddy enlargement.
Girls will drive crazy with your size.
Girls like when it big.


[Another great quasi-haiku I received via e-mail, but from which I did not want too prominently to quote because I've lost the name of the poet, goes like this: "Bam. A rocking baller cock in your pants."  Who said poetry is dead!]


** No: when you mean bullshit, you do not not spell it bologna.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

say it ain't so, 'bama

So Barack Obama decided to help George W. Bush dismantle FISA.  OK.  Many points lost.  Painful tooth grinding.  Moral high ground over his erstwhile opponent with her Machiavellianism and pandering, well, maybe somewhat eroded.  Yeah.  So thinking about this makes me wince—like, literally.

BUT:

I've grown to be excited about Obama the man himself, but I started out supporting him in Jun. 2007 because of my conviction that he was the candidate who was best equipped to win in Nov. 2008 [speaking of Machiavellianism].  To be unflatteringly candid, I would be supporting holy heart-snatcher Mola Ram of the colorful pate if I thought he was our best bet for the White House.  Now, the things that make Obama so delightfully electable are, mostly, also things that make him great, the man himself—but of course he is in the end a politician, and the fact remains, or rather resurfaces, actually surprising me and coming almost as a kind of relief, that what makes him such an important figure is not that he's a saint, God's gift to politics, but rather that he is an incredible politician.

And especially after almost eight years of Mr. Bush, I am ready to swallow my pride and vote for just about anyone who will hand more control to the Democrats.  Maybe it's the lesser of two evils; maybe anyone who would want to be president (as Douglas Adams suggests in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe [best of the "trilogy"?]) is pretty much bad news for the people and unfit to govern; maybe, maybe it's even true that the Obama phenomenon is made up more of substance-free image than people like me would like to believe.  But—BUT—antipartisan hands-across-America rhetoric be damned, the Republican leadership of this country is dangerous and indeed already disastrous, and it has got to go.  And whether or not Barack Obama is the dream candidate he's sometimes seemed to be—even if it turns out he's no better, in the end, idealismwise, than any other politician (which I actually don't believe, by the way, but even if)—I remain convinced that no one today is better suited or better prepared to sweep Bush-conservative Republican–Nationalism into the...what was it called?...oh, right: the dust-bin of history.

Go get 'em, tiger!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

smokin' Indo

Indo–European roots!  Can I get an amen??*

For all of us who get a kick out of etymology (all two of us), few things can be quite so titillating as The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, available for free on Bartleby.com.  (The only real competition is grammarsluts.com, where the hottest girls will never say no to your predicate nominative.**)

What makes this dictionary so great is that it has not only etymology but also Indo–European roots—sort of an über-etymology, going way back.  Latin or Greek is far enough back*** to delight us with such neato-keano surprises as apocalpyse and revelation's meaning pretty much exactly the same thing, but you gotta hit that Indo for the really out-there unveilings.

Let's say you're curious about the word ingenious (which of course you already know is not synonymous with genius).  Check that American Heritage on Bartleby, and you'll learn that ingenious descends from gen [with an upside-down e at the end of it] (no surprise so far) and that its cousins include not only words like generate, genocide, genital, and, yes, genius (again, not so surprising) but also a motley crew including general, engine, indigenous, gonad, kinkingkind (Hamlet knew, clearly), Kriss Kringle(?), benign and malign, pregnant, nationnaïve, nature, Noël, puny...??  Who knew kings and Christmas were so close to gonads?

Another quick one.  Looked up egg, right?****  OK, so no surprise that it would have something to do with ovum, ovary, etc., but what you find out when you check out that root (awi-) is that (and this is sort of obvious once you think of it) human beings didn't used to know***** that women had eggs inside of them (remember the hilarious homunculus theories), so ovum and ovary come from bird eggs, not the other way around, and in fact the common root means bird!  That awi- is the great-great-grandpappy to words like avian, aviary, ostrich...  And this is the kind of shit I really love: auspice, an omen, which of course people back in the day used to figure out from watching birds, yo!  Never put auspice next to osprey before, I betcha!  A fish-eating hawk!  Bodes well for our journey!  Awwww yeah!!

Once you learn the eggbird identification, you won't be as baffled by a word like caviar (avi, fish eggs), and you will be tickled (synonymous with titillated) to realize that an oval is a shape like a bird egg...

Damn, I am wearing myself out with all this excitement!

* Holy crap—they've got Semitic roots, too?  Can I get a hell yeah??
** Nobody owns grammarsluts.com!  Somebody snap up that shit up fast!
*** Grammar sluts know how to conjugate a verb with a rock-hard this-or-that subject.
**** One problem with Bartleby: it doesn't search too hot, so you enter in egg and the word egg is the fuckin' sixteenth result.  (#1 is Easter egg.)
***** I'm none too comfortable with "didn't used to," but reportedly it is the way...and of course the way that can be said comfortably is not the eternal way.

Monday, July 7, 2008

impoverished text

OK, so I can't get that last post to be in the right font.  Dagblasted computers.

The good news is, I was meaning to say a little something about writing on the internet.  When you've got a pen and paper or I guess a printing press—even your very own word processor—you've got some control over what winds up on the page.  And if you stick with the basic characters, I suppose it makes no difference.  But I am someone who, OK, yes, has been known to use italics in e-mails.  Like, all the time.  How the hell else are you supposed to write the title of a book or a movie?  I'm not going to put them in quotes.  Maybe if I worked at The New Yorker I'd reevaluate...excuse me, reëvaluate...  But even, hey, lookee there: if I were sending you an e-mail and wanted to make fun of The New Yorker for its use of the diaeresis (more like diarrhea, HAW), I'd not know not only whether you'd see the italics, but also whether "reëvaluate" would come out looking right or would have some fuckin' Wing-Ding bullshit in the middle of it.  This is my greatest fear: Wing-Ding bullshit.

So I wind up writing crap like "the Latin fanum [with a line over the a]" instead of actually producing the appropriate character, for fear of, you know...the Wing-Dings.  I'm reasonably confident that here on Blogger you'll be able to see em-dashes and italics and accents like aigu or cereal-corn-flakes ("Allô!")...but there's that nagging fear...

Please contact the president about this important issue.

I don't like that writer you like.

Michael Chabon is no fuckin' good.  Lately everybody seems to go on about how incredibly amazing his prose is, like he's some literary acrobat.  Not remembering that from The Amazing Adventures of Bullshit & Crap (and not having been able to get past the first chapter or two of The Yiddish Babysitters Club), I found myself squinting my eyes with a particular kind of nervous attention every time I read excerpts from his books in a review, searching for a clue to what was so great about this guy...and never did the excerpts seem to justify the excitement.  Then, one day, I came upon this one little shit-nugget being presented as a diamond and finally figured it out: what people were trumpeting as good writing was actually bad writing!  People just don't know what the hell they're talking about!

...which of course was a tremendous relief.

But so here, see for yourself.  From New York magazine, which suggests that Bullshit & Crap is an exemplary New York novel:

"[Blah blah blah] Chabon's signature abracadbra prose (the East River is a 'flatulent poison-green ribbon')."

A flatulent poison-green ribbon.

OK:

(1) A ribbon cannot be flatulent.

Right?  So then one of three things is possible:

(a) it could be a badly mixed metaphor [in which case like Q.E.D.],
(b) it could be two separate metaphors that are just, like...roommates? [in which case see (2) below]—or
(c) maybe flatulent or ribbon is not in fact part of the metaphor: like, either the river is a (cue metaphor) "ribbon" that is actually somehow literally flatulent, or the river, which is literally a ribbon in some sense, is (cue metaphor) "flatulent" [in which case see (3) below].

(2) A phrase containing two separate, competing metaphors with no connection to each other, separated from each other like a snake and a rat by a removable wall in a cage, is not so much "abracadabra prose" as it is bumbling and careless prose—think of a magician reaching into his hat and pulling out a bleeding handful of broken glass.  (No, wait...that's awesome.)

(3) The East River is not literally flatulent, and calling a river a ribbon is stupid.

And poison-green?  After Joyce's snotgreen and scrotumtightening, you can just go ahead and color me unimpressed.

Here's what I like: Pynchon's description of a "doper" as having "eyes like two piss-holes in a snowbank."

That's what I'M talking about.  BOO-YAH!