Sunday, May 30, 2004

It's That Time of the Year Again

Friends and family of Silentio may well remember that it is normal for me to spend an inordinate amount of my summer in Belgium. Far be it from me to actually enjoy the only season in Scotland worth sticking around for. Well . . . this year is no different. Yesterday, K. and I hopped on a flight bound for Charlerois, and then a car bound for the Belgian/Dutch border -- just in the nick of time to watch Belgium beat the Netherlands in a friendly (the Dutch, as has been their way the past couple of years, could hit everything just around the goal but the net). Anyway, for the next couple of weeks I'll be spending my time re-learning how to type on a Euro -- i.e., AZERTY -- keyboard (the letters, by the way, aren't nearly as difficult to remember as the obscure punctuation like brackets and such), reading William Gaddis' The Recognitions, and tidying up my thesis' new, souped-up first chapter, 'On Beginning to Characterize: An Introduction'. In the meantime, I might also steal out into the Belgium night, to enjoy a fine beer and a movie. Perhaps even, per Scott Martens' acerbic review, I might just need a beer to make it through The Day After Tomorrow. (I remember seeing the preview for this one when I saw The Passion, and even that sphincter-tighteningly bad of a movie didn't make this thing look good.) And yet, because one can only see so much of the Olsen twins -- one of their movies, is as a matter of fact, on tv right now, and I definitely remember cringing at the television show when it was on over here last summer -- and Belgium is where I shell out the Euro to see shitty movies, I will very likely buy myself a stinky kebob ball, a cone of frites, and enjoy myself as New York City and Donnie Darko are frozen over.

Oh, and yes, I hope to blog quite a bit.

Monday, May 17, 2004

Status Report


That's roughly how many words, as of this afternoon, I have written for my thesis. All of them -- er, most of them -- pretty good words, too. Spelled correctly and everything.

I tell you this now simply to flag up the fact that I had a very uncommon (for me) burst of creative energy this past week. Upon returning to my introduction, which I've taken to calling, for lack of a better name, 'chapter one', I realised where I was getting bogged down. Namely, I no longer believed the central philosophical premise that I spend forty pages presenting there; in fact, I believed the exact opposite. This sounds a bit more dramatic than it was is, though. One thing I've learned is that the 'opposite' of anything is normally much more similar than we might be disposed to think possible. It is when you begin with entirely different (versus 'opposed') premises that you begin to get into trouble. Anyway, without going into detail about the change, suffice it to say the reversal has energised my production. 'Tis a nice thing, indeed, to have sufficient confidence to say, without hint of irony: 'I know what I'm talking about here!'

A friend of mine took advantage of this very odd exuberance on my part and talked me into submitting a proposal for a creative conference in late-June. Here's what I've come up:

I want a voice . . .

Such is the theme of the original material / reflections that I have in mind for the first annual Scottish Conference of Creative Writing. I am a third-year PhD student in the Centre for the Study of Literature, Theology and the Arts, studying the strange contagions of love, comedy and madness that infect our philosophical / theological thinking.

I propose that God, too, 'wants a voice' -- that it is in speaking that God / Eternity IS. The comedy / madness (depending on how you look at it) is that God is not Himself, and that true religious love is the acceptance of this 'damaged' deity. Or, in other words, that it is only in 'original sin', the fall from God, that God is at all. My proposed pieces for this conference are a mixture of original verse and prose -- verse-in-prose -- and short reflections on what I perceive to be parallel in the condition of the writer (w/ regard to 'writing'). Wherein, popular thinking notwithstanding, the writer does not lose herself in writing -- the truth / identity of writer and writing deferred -- but actually produces herself, IS at all, in 'the Fall' / the 'original sin' of writing. Such is the anxiety of the writer who stops writing, who loses her voice, and thus loses herself.

Now, of course, regular readers of this blog know that I do not have a very good track record for getting papers accepted to conferences. So, who knows. You'll know when I do.

Right now, though, it's back to work for me.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

A Quote

This one is for Pat:

What does the becoming-man of God in the figure of Christ, His descent from eternity to the temporal realm of our reality, mean for God Himself? What if that which appears to ous, finite mortals, as God's descent toward us, is, from the standpoint of God Himself, an ascent. What if, as Schelling implied, eternity is less than temporality? What if eternity is a sterile, impotent, lifeless domain of pure potentialities, which, in order fully to actualize itself, has to pass through temporal existence? What if God's descent to man, far from being an act of grace toward humanity, is the only way for God to gain full actuality, and to liberate Himself from the suffocating constraints of Eternity? What if God actualizes Himself only through human recognition?

We have to get rid of the old Platonic topos of love as Eros that gradually elevates itself from love for a particular individual, through love for the beauty of a human body in general and the love of the beautiful form as such, to love for the supreme Good beyond all forms: true love is precisely the opposite move of forsaking the promise of Eternity itself for an imperfect individual. (This lure of eternity can take many forms, from postmortal fame to fulfilling one's social role.) What if the gesture of choosing temporal existence, of giving up eternal existence for the sake of love -- from Christ to Siegmund in Act II of Wagner's Die Walkure, who prefers to remain a common mortal if his beloved Sieglinde cannot follow him to Valhalla, the eternal dwelling-place of dead heroes -- is the highest ethical act of them all? The shattered Brunnhilde comments on this refusal: "So little do you value everlasting bliss? Is she everything to you, this poor woman who, tired and sorrowful, lies limp in your lap? Do you think nothing less glorious?" Ernst Bloch was right to observe that what is lacking German history are more gestures like Siegmund's.

We usally claim that time is the ultimate prison ("no one can jump outside his/her time"), and that the whole of philosophy and religion circulates around one aim: to break out of this prison-house of time into eternity. What, however, if, as Schelling implies, eternity is the ultimate prison, a suffocating closure, and it is only the fall into time that introduces Opening into human experience?

Monday, May 10, 2004

The Problem With the Trojans

Hee . . . Belle Waring has a hilarious post over on Crooked Timber about the dissonance between the Trojans of antiquity and the Trojans of modernity (i.e., the University of Southern California, and the ubiquitous condom manufacturer).

Re: USC Trojans.

Now, there is just one story cycle involving the Trojans and conflict, and in it the Trojans decisively, utterly lose. I'm not saying they're losers, per se; I'm always rooting for the Trojans because I love Hector. But imagine a coach giving an inspirational speech along these lines: "Guys, I want to you get out there and fight with all your hearts, only to see all you hold dear destroyed. At the end of this bowl game, I want you to feel like the original Trojans did when the saw their ancestral altar run red with the blood of aged Priam, beheld the pitiful spectacle of little Astyanax's body broken on the walls of Troy, and heard the lamentations of their daughters, mothers and wives as they were reduced to slavery in a foreign land." It's not exactly "win one for the Gipper," is it?

Re: condoms.

What do you think of when you hear the word "Trojan"? . . . Probably, you think: Trojan horse. So consider the context. There's this big...item outside your walled citadel, and you are unsure whether to let it inside. After hearing the pros and cons (and seeing some people eaten by snakes), you open the gates and drag the big old thing inside. Then, you get drunk. At the height of the party, hundreds of little guys come spilling out of the thing and sow destruction, breaking "Troy's hallowed coronal," as they say. Is this, all things considered, the ideal story for condom manufacturers to evoke? Just asking.

Update: I cleaned up this post, by the way, upon noticing that a lot of weird coding got included when I was copying & pasting.

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

More Torture

Look, I know I've been really harping on this subject a lot lately. In fact, I would probably highlight it as the kick in the pants I needed to start blogging with a bit more regularity. Give me a few days and I'm sure I'll be back to my normal self.

In the meantime, though, I wanted to use this post as a hearty "HEAR HEAR!" for what Matthew Yglesias has to say, er, here. He sums up extraordinarily well why this is not simply a black eye on the military brass and the accused soldiers (or, for that matter, the private contractors):

I'm a bit concerned at the tone of over-the-top bloodlust I'm hearing from some people regarding what they'd like to see done to the guilty soldiers here. Not that the parties in question deserve to get off lightly here, but I really feel they're being set up as suckers. After all, before any of this Abu Ghraib stuff came out, we knew the following. One: the US government sometimes shipped suspects off to foreign countries in order to have them tortured as a means of procuring information. Two: the US government has gone out of its way to maintain the claim that people detained in Iraq and Afghanistan should not be considered either prisoners of war with Geneva Convention protections or criminals with constitutional rights. Three: the US government wanted to procure information from the people detained at Abu Ghraib.

Now I seriously doubt an explicit order ever came down from on high saying, "sadistically torture these guys," but I'm not sure what other conclusion the people charged with handling the interrogations were supposed to draw from the top leadership's conduct other than that torture would be condoned as long as the people doing it didn't call attention to themselves.

Well said.

Sunday, May 02, 2004

You Say "Po-tay-toe", I Say . . .

Kevin Drum is spot on here.

You know, as crass as it sounds, when it comes to things like war and the assessing the implications of, for instance, torturing the enemy, our concern should not simply be humanistic (though, that it should be as well!); nor is it an end-all rationale for either pulling all soldiers out of Iraq or dismissing the Arab press wholesale as disseminators of anti-Americanism. *sigh* War, this war in particular, is surely one of truth and justice (to be sure), and it is to be fought with force . . . but also, and this is something that is damn frustrating, considering how (ahem!) 'good' America is at propagandizing its own people, public relations. It is a lesson, to some extent, 'the evil doers' have learned rather well (see here).

Now, is America so pitifully bad at public relations because it is a superpower, and because people tend to pull for the populist challenger? Maybe. Or, and this is my thought, is there is also something more inherent to the American moral compass that blinds us to the perspective of others? I'm currently working on a paper dealing with the latter (well, not specifically, but it is close enough in scope). Ideally, I'll have something intelligent to say about it sometime this week. Stay tuned.

UPDATE: Incidentally, re: all this talk of abuse and such, Seymour Hersh's latest article in the New Yorker, wherein he investigates how far up the blame goes -- and with what regularity prisoners were abused -- is a definite must-read.

UPDATE2: Oh, and yes, it's sometimes easy to miss the forest for all these torturous trees. The Medium Lobster points us in the right direction:

** The activities that occurred at Abu Ghuraib prison are not to be compared to those of Saddam Hussein's rape rooms and torture chambers. After all, those were rape rooms and torture chambers. These were merely rooms in which rape occurred, and chambers in which individuals were tortured.

** In war, atrocities will happen, as dew on the grass in the morning, or flower blossoms in the spring. The dew gathers. The buds open. The atrocities bloom. It is all according to the mysterious, ever-unfolding cycle of life - a cycle too vast and complex for mere mortals to comprehend.

** These were isolated incidents, and the behavior of these prison guards should in no way reflect upon the military superiors who endorsed and promoted such behavior. This is because atrocities are supervenient on subordinates, but not on command structures. Those with greater learning will understand.

Got that? Good. Now, can we please go back to talking about John Kerry's medals (or were they ribbons!?!) and whether or not American Idol is crap . . . er I mean racist? Let it never be said that America doesn't know an important news story when it sees one.

Good For a Sunday Read

I will have more to say about this a bit later, but for the time being I highly recommend that you take the time to read Michael Ignatieff's cover article in today's New York Times Magazine: "Lesser Evils". Ignatieff is here talking very practically and even-handedly about the 'war on terror' -- namely, how one wins (and loses) such a war.

A teaser:

Regulating a war on terror with ethical rules and democratic oversight is much harder than regulating traditional wars. In traditional wars, there are rules, codes of warriors' honor that are supposed to limit the barbarity of the conflict, to protect civilians from targeting, to keep the use of force proportional and to keep it confined to military objectives. The difference between us and terrorists is supposed to be that we play by these rules, even if they don't. No, I haven't forgotten Hiroshima and My Lai. The American way of war has often been brutal, but at least our warriors are supposed to fight with honor and can be punished if they don't. There is no warrior's honor among terrorists.

[. . .]

The siren song in any war on terror is ''let slip the dogs of war.'' Let them hunt. Let them kill. Already, we have dogs salivating at the prospect. A liberal society cannot be defended by herbivores. We need carnivores to save us, but we had better make sure the meat-eaters hunt only on our orders.

Taunting us until we let the dogs slip is any canny terrorist's best hope of success. The Algerian terrorists who fought the French colonial occupation in the 1950's had no hope of defeating the armies of France in pitched battle. Their only chance of victory lay in provoking the French into a downward spiral of reprisals, indiscriminate killings and torture so that the Algerian masses would rise in hatred and the French metropolitan population would throw up its hands in disgust. The tactic worked. Terror won in Algeria because France lost its nerve and lost its control of counterterror.

[. . .]

On all fronts, keeping a war on terror under democratic scrutiny is critical to its operational success. A lesser-evil approach permits preventive detention, where subject to judicial review; coercive interrogation, where subject to executive control; pre-emptive strikes and assassination, where these serve publicly defensible strategic goals. But everything has to be subject to critical review by a free people: free debate, public discussion, Congressional review, in camera if need be, judicial review as a last resort. The war needs to be less secretive, not more. We need to know more about it, not less, even if what we learn is hard. If it comes to it, we need to know, every time we fly, that in case of a hijacking, the president has authorized our pilots to shoot us down if a crash risks killing still more people. In a war on terror, painful truth is far better than lies and illusions.

Above all, we need to keep faith with freedom. When terrorists strike against constitutional democracies, one of their intentions is to persuade electorates and elites that the strengths of these societies -- public debate, mutual trust, open borders and constitutional restraints on executive power- are weaknesses. When strengths are seen as weaknesses, it is easy to abandon them. If this is the logic of terror, then democratic societies must find a way to renew their belief that their apparent vulnerabilities are actually a form of strength. This does not require anything new or special. It simply means that those who have charge of democratic institutions need to do their jobs. We want C.I.A. men and women who understand that the dogs of war are needed, but that they need to be on a leash. We want judges who understand that national security is not a carte blanche for the abrogation of individual rights; a free press that keeps asking, Where are the detainees and what are you doing with them? We want a Congress that will not allow national security to prevent it from subjecting executive power to adversarial review. This, after all, is only what our Constitution intends. Our institutions were designed to regulate evil means and control potentially evil people.

The middle way -- that of an ethically responsible, and yet powerfully persuasive, democracy under the seige of terrorism -- is certainly difficult. But who would argue today that it's not worth the effort? The imperative and painful trick at this point, however, is assessing our success thus far.