Thursday, February 25, 2016

The View From North of 80 - Part 1 (Plato and Don Corleone)

Interstate Highway 80 runs between the George Washington Bridge over New York's Hudson River across the entire country to San Francisco, California.  I've repeatedly traveled many lengthy segments of it (ditto, 70 and 90, and the old Hwy 66), and have now lived for the past 25 years well north of that latitude in Maine.

But then what I also mean by "north of 80" is not just spatial fact, but also temporal metaphor--sailing "north," past my 80th birthday. I'll use this Part 1 to explore the "view" from this age, and devote Part 2 to some perceptions about my current geographical home--my view from Maine's northeast corner.

The "view" in both cases includes a sizable component of melancholy grandeur, as I stare from my office window across the gray piles of snow towards warmer climes to the south , and as I look back on decades of sunny experiences and feelings from the vantage point of this sometimes cloudier age.

Are there satisfactions in advancing age that I never imagined when I was 40? Have I become wiser?  Better qualified to advise, decide, think things through? Am I happier?

Such questions gain a certain ghastly poignancy in a week when F. and I watched all three parts of Francis Ford Coppola's monumental Godfather trilogy, that trace generations of the Sicilian Corleone family from Brando's (and DeNiro's) "Godfather," Vito, to his son and successor, Michael (Al Pacino), bookending these two with briefer stories of Vito's father in Sicily, and Michael's children.  (I amuse myself by noting, irrelevantly, that Michael and Kay could have driven almost the entire journey between mob headquarters in New York and the family compound at Lake Tahoe, CA....on Highway 80!)

Michael Corleone never stops answering--in murderous particularity--Montaigne's question: "how to live?" Of course the question is as old as civilization and beyond.  Michael's answer seems to be: Put family first. Provide for your family in any way necessary. Providing always involves amassing wealth and power.  These can be had by courting those who already have wealth and power--with respect and money. Know your enemies, and keep them close to you.  Show no mercy in disposing of those who challenge your power or threaten your family, even when it means killing other family members. Justice is surviving.  For the family.

It bears notice that Michael, by these means, always ends up...alone. (And dies alone in a courtyard in Sicily--with two puppies--sitting in the sun, in the last shot of the trilogy.)  So much for the joys and rewards of family.

I won't be trying to say what the "good life" is in this brief essay. I am as puzzled as everyone has always been about that question.  I'm merely hoping to say how the question seems to me now--starting my ninth decade.

The Greek philosophers had their answers: the good life has happiness as its aim. No one seeks to live well as a means to a "higher" goal.  There are no higher goals, since health, wealth, power, aesthetic and romantic intensity, wide travel and deep knowledge, etc., are sought only for the well-being they can promote, not the other way around.  Aristotle's finer point on the question argues that happiness is an activity in accordance with virtue--an answer with a great deal to recommend it, though it leads immediately to the question: "any activity in sync with virtue?"  And "what is virtue?"  I could set out to dust and redust every object in my house in an OCD paroxysm lasting decades.  This would be an activity, and it harms no one (virtuous!), but it would hardly guarantee happiness and a good life.  And what is virtue? Is it promoting the greatest good for the greatest number? Following the categorical imperative of acting so that I could will that the maxim of my act be made universal law? Following God's will (and how would I know that)?  Maximizing pleasure, both in myself and others?  Each answer generates its own characteristic new questions, and all are, alas, ...finally unanswerable.

The Corleones got the activity part--always expanding their "businesses" in narcotics, prostitution, kickbacks, protection rackets, political corruption, fraud, and other items from a shopping cart just exiting Dante's nine circles of hell--all accomplished in violence, betrayal, and treachery.  They fell short just a bit, however, shall we say, in the matter of virtue?

Perhaps Michael does have an inkling of that element of the equation lurking in his Sicilian inheritance--Sicily was, after all, at the heart of the birth of the "Greek miracle," the site chosen by Plato as ideal for his perfect Republic, and locus for some of the best descriptions in Homer's Odyssey. The Don must live by the code--which implies, however distortedly, a "moral" dimension. Whatever the truth of his motive, Michael does abide by "the code" enough to serve his country with valor in the war in the Pacific, and to write a check now to the Church for $100,000,000 to further its "good works."  In exchange, he gets a nice necklace from the Pope, giving him membership in the Order of San Sebastion--(and parenthetically lubricating the deal that will give him a controlling interest in a vast real estate consortium, Immobiliare, in which the Church had held an inconvenient 25% interest.)

Aristotle's eudaimonistic ethics, based, as it is, on the search for human flourishing into happiness, led to the famous doctrine of the "golden mean"--virtue as the mean between two extremes (courage, the virtuous mean,  falls between cowardice and foolhardiness, defined as deficiency and excess in the domain of action in danger.)  The Greeks, thereby, merge the aesthetic notions of proportion, balance, and harmony, with the ethical notions of right and wrong, building the foundation for the proverbial Western idea that Beauty, Truth, and the Good are intimately, and internally related. does that work out in practice?

What about the "real" world of us animals in competition, inhabiting, as we do, psyches mired in our irrational urges for dominance, bodily pleasure, full bellies, revenge, laziness, and acquisition--especially since we live, cluelessly, our short lives of desperation for survival, heir to illnesses of mind and body, and tainted by our shared genetic past?  How does a child ever mature into a functioning, moral human person, when abilities and circumstances vary so horribly: how can we expect a brain-damaged youth, born in a war zone, scrambling to avoid starvation and violent death, to think about the Golden Mean and "human flourishing," when all the forces of that young person's environment are arrayed in a perfect storm of destructiveness?

Here's where some of Plato's stranger ideas in The Republic had their genesis, and where my preoccupation here with age comes into play.  Plato recognized that time as history--the "original sin" of his "timeless" utopianism--makes every generation a hopeless candidate for beginning his just Republic.  Parents, historical circumstances, and psycho-sexual flaws and pathologies ruin each generation by adolescence--by the time they could be asked to create the needed institutions for a better society. So he had to envisage a system of education that would prepare the ideal citizenry. Skipping the lengthy details, the system (available to anyone who cares to read The Republic), involves a lengthy apprenticeship in life and at the Academy, which is governed by the Philosophers, whose duty it is to tell the kids a "Noble Lie" about their origins and reality, in order that each child be put in their correct class and stratum of society--as workers, military warriors, or philosophers, so that justice is achieved by each class's "minding its own business." This mythic lie is meant to avoid having philosophers being asked to cut stone, and carpenters being asked to teach philosophy, or either being asked to defend the country in war.  The captain of a ship should know something about navigation, not take command by a coin flip, or a brawl on the foredeck. (Origin of the Civil Service exams.)

There are a couple shocking little details in this grand scheme: to get the first generation of uncorrupted students, the philosophers have to kill everyone in the city over age ten, after taking them outside the city. These killer-philosophers can then return to start telling the Big Lie to the sub-ten-year-old population to get the generational ball rolling for a perfect State.  This means that the transformative generation of philosophers must be killers and willful liars, prompting the question whether things have changed much in 2500 years (consider Pol Pot's Cambodia, Idi Amin's Uganda, periods of Chinese history, Russian purges, Hitler's Germany, American slave-trade and genocide, the French Revolution's descent into the Reign of Terror...and, come to think of it...just about any society's actual history!)   Don Corleone's business practices were, by comparison, quite benign and enlightened--he was an amateur.  In Plato's Republic there was to be no private property. In addition, the State would supervise all breeding, and the Big Lie included abolishing all knowledge of one's parents, carefully engineered eugenics, and the myth that the State was responsible for one's birth and heritage: no family loyalties and competitions, no mother-in-law jokes, no passing down of family dynasties, no family reunions--sort of a kibbutz gone off the deep end.  (On the other hand, Plato was a feminist of sorts--specifying that girls be given the same exams and having the same opportunities as boys in the climb towards philosophically informed rulership! Souls have no gender.)

Plato reserved the serious study of philosophy to those men and women suited by nature and ability, until age 50, and then only after an enriched experience of the world in travel, conversation, work, social projects, and a rich resumé of qualifying preparation. By this measure I did it all somewhat backwards--studying philosophy intensively in my youth and up to age 30, then setting out to experience the wider worlds of travel and erotic exploration, the arts, sailing, and so on, retiring from "Philosophy" at age 55, having followed Socrates's example only in my refusal to publish during my long teaching career. (Don't try this in today's universities!)  Now 30 years past Plato's prescribed age for studying philosophy, I am even less certain that I am ready yet to say anything significant to the Seeker of Wisdom.  Age seems not to convey wisdom, except in one Socratic way: as I said in my former essay here, I now know that I know nothing. At age 40 I was pretty sure that I did--though not enough to publish any grand summation of insights.  Rather, you should read Juvenal, Montaigne, Dostoevsky, Merleau-Ponty, Nietzsche, DeBeauvoir, Marx, Barthes, Balzac, Zinn, Carlin, Marcuse, and others who actually have had a few new and true things to say about human life on this planet, though each of them, if pushed, should admit to puzzlements similar to mine. We see through a glass...darkly.

Soooo,  I'll opt out of advice-giving.  It is tempting (always for a career teacher) to pontificate a bit.  Indeed there are opinions of mine that I consider to be both quite unusual and true, controversial and powerful, very useful to many people on their way through adulthood towards their own vaunted senior citizenship--ideas about solitude, work, friendship, family, bodily pleasures, aesthetic epiphanies, groups, sports, political priorities, possessions, travel, God, death, risk, goals, habits, cruelty, ambition, self-expression, hobbies, fashion, beauty, class society, pretension, ethnocentrism, music, work, schedules, writers, fire, water, earth, and air. But a few minutes thought kills all desire to convey these notions.

Why?  When I read my journals, consult my memory, admit past actions, test my pet theories, judge my predictive successes, compare current needs to past obsessions, or perform any act that could confirm or disconfirm any opinion of mine, I see that Plato was right about part of the equation: as a product of a particular society, in a specific century, in a unique culture, with a non-universal (or even standard) biography, in this body with its specific traits and imbalances, biological and psychological maladaptations, and so on to near infinity, I have no way to suppose that MY opinions should carry any special weight or status. And I believe that he was blindly wrong about the other half of his thesis--that a group of men meeting in the agora in Athens, adept with language and logical argument, even with years of such training in dialectic, could ever erase or neutralize the specific effects of their embodied particularities in time and place in such a way as to arrive at universal truths. Self-correcting science does a hell of a lot better job at allowing us to crawl towards enlightenment and truth than any other means that has yet been put to use.  But science, too, is pursued by people with the same unavoidable faults born of finitude, embodiment, and historicity as those men in Plato's Academy assenting endlessly to Socrates's stand-up performances.

I have reached an age 30 years beyond the suggested apogee of suitability for philosophy.  But before saying more, I think I'd like a little nap.  And when I return I would gratefully accept that comfortable chair over there,...if offered.

<to be continued>

Photography and Art (Revised Modest Manifesto)

Anyone can make a photograph and the result is a commodity like any other that can be sold. The fate of such commodities depends, like others, on cultural fads, advertising, celebrity endorsements, and other forms of marketplace ideology of the moment—almost always in the service of profit, whether corporate, institutional, or personal. The trick to selling “art” is to give the customers what they want—to divine the current eros operating in the marketplace and meet the market “need”—no different from “stainless appliances and granite countertops” in current real estate ads.

Almost all “art” offered in “galleries” in every country of the world today belongs in this category: marketed commodities to meet current market demand: “Art” for interior designers, corporate offices, rich bored upper-middle-class consumers, “educated” in well-marketed, branded universities, speculative investors, and so on. Think of “critics” in the local media as enablers and lobbyists for their friends, and you’ll be getting close to the way the system actually works.

The question should be: “what uses of photographic technology generate ‘art,’ or more to the point, ‘fine art’?” This question requires an answer to a prior question not really addressed in most discussions of this topic: What makes fine art fine? It is assumed we know it when we see it. History suggests that we do not.

At this stage of my life and practice, I have concluded that no one has ever bettered Roland Barthes in answering this vexing question. In The Pleasure of the Text (67 pp. in translation), he deftly distinguishes between texts of pleasure (plaisir) and texts of bliss (jouissance). If we extend “text” to include photographs (“drawing with light”), then I can paraphrase his definitions, as follows:

Pleasure: the photograph that contents, fills, grants euphoria: the photo that comes from culture and does not break with it, is linked to a comfortable practice of “reading” it.

Bliss: the photograph that imposes a state of loss, that discomforts (perhaps to the point of a certain boredom), and unsettles the viewer’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relation with visual representation.

This approach  is not entirely new: the surrealists and others in the modernist tradition preached, as Ezra Pound put it, “Make it new!”

Viewing photographs of “pleasure” (landscapes, seascapes, lighthouses, old boats, ruins, children’s portraits, voluptuous nudes, sunsets, …you know the drill) gives a pleasure akin to making love to a long-time lover, who knows your every need, and meets it comfortably and predictably, just as you do hers.

Photographs of “bliss” are more akin to the enhanced orgasms (“jouissance” in French, and very much what Barthes had in mind) that one might associate with a wrenchingly disruptive erotic event that would never fit in a Valentine’s Day verse.

In my view most commercial and gallery art is of the “pleasure” variety, while fine art blissfully disrupts our zone of comfort and redefines the assumptions we hold concerning the effects of viewing in general, often redefining an entire genre: portrait, still life, landscape, abstraction.

Of course this disjunct (like any apocalyptic erotic event) has a relatively brief shelf-life. The scandal of Impressionist painting quickly became the cliché of every schlock painter selling on the street in New York, Paris, or Des Moines--or reproduced in greeting cards at the corner drug store.

To be clear, I would prefer to withhold judgment on the question whether an art of "bliss" is to be considered more aesthetically/experientially valuable than the art of "pleasure."  In fact, in most cases, I prefer to experience an accomplished work in a familiar genre, and evoking confirmation of former aesthetic pleasures with long-treasured associations and connections, than taking on the work of trying to accommodate the shock of the new, the provocative, the in-your-face boring work that is veering into new territory, challenging my ideas of what's ugly, what's banal, what's bereft of content.

Nevertheless, the existence of such work remains the source of my hope for the future of photography (and the arts in general): there will always be new clichés to smash.

This will not happen, culturally, in Portland (or Des Moines or Atlanta). It only happens in the big centers—Manhattan, Paris, Berlin, Tokyo, and so on. That is, even the most revolutionary break in the photographic tradition needs the massive cultural apparatus of museums, billionaire collectors, social networking, art magazines, and other power-brokers to launch a truly revolutionary vision into the historical culture.  Andy Warhol would not be Andy, if he had stayed in Pittsburgh.

So “fine art” is finally coopted by the market and turned into an art of pleasure. The trick is to be available to live in the moment when the experience is still disruptive—or if your motive is to make sales in the market, to be in the right place, the right age, the right gender, have the right friends, and a hell of a story (or resumé) to sell.  Bon voyage!

Coda:  READ Arthur Danto!

If questions like these have any interest for you, then you will probably do no better than to rush to buy or borrow books on art by the late Arthur C. Danto, who began his long teaching career at Columbia University as a philosophy professor with special expertise in Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, and ended it with several decades of remarkable work on the philosophy of art--while serving as art critic for The Nation. See, for example, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Philosophy of Art.  Danto tackles the most vexing questions about what makes the difference between art works and commonplace objects with no discernable differences--without resorting to questionable appeals to internal subjective states and intentions.  Danto studied in Paris under Merleau-Ponty, whose essay, "Cezanne's Doubt," by the way, constitutes my other French touchstone (along with Barthes) for any constructive theory of art.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Que sais-je? On knowing nothing, more or less...

I saw a YouTube video of college students in Texas who did not know who won the Civil War, the name of the Vice-President, or the enemy in the American Revolution, though, to a person, they knew the name of Snooki's TV show, and the names of Brad Pitt's wives.  Despair ensued.

But then I started thinking about my own ignorance--near universal in scope and depth.  Google tells me that Mogadishu is capital and largest city of Somalia, and fronts the Indian Ocean on Africa's east coast well north of Mombasa, similarly placed in Kenya to the south.  I was not aware of these simple facts, though our town has a great number of immigrants and refugees from Somalia, and though I'd have no such vagueness and puzzlement in discussing the location of, say, New Orleans and Galveston in this country, or Marseilles and Cannes on the Med in France.  My knowledge of science and math is rudimentary to the point of shame--maybe high school level, at best.  I never took Calculus, and could not list the chronology or names of standard geological epochs.  I never read War and Peace, nor most of Shakespeare's plays.  I do not know the names of the monarchs in the House of Tudor, nor their dates, much less the names and chronology of the emperors of China.  This is something of a scandal for a man who just passed his 80th birthday, and who spent his life in largely intellectual pursuits--a 30-year veteran of a career teaching in some major colleges and universities.

What kinds of things DO I know?  How to build stuff with shop tools. How to get around in New York, Los Angeles, and Paris.  A general outline of some major philosophies from the 17th to the 20th century.  A little about films from the French New Wave, films noirs, and a few classics directed by Hitchcock, Lang, Renoir, Bergman, and Fellini. How to roast a chicken.  A bit about sailing and navigation for boating. How to type, build a computer from components, use Photoshop. How to speak and write in English.  Grammar, sometimes. A bit of French. Laundry. Finding (sometimes) weaknesses in other people's arguments.   Some things I used to know better than the average person: skiing, radio circuits, darkroom procedures, art history, jazz--I could go on, but I come quickly to realize how paltry the list would be, even if complete.

Am I then so different from the ignorant Texas students?  Not really.

I seek refuge in identifying with Socrates in the Apology, who is truly wise, according to Plato, since "true wisdom is knowing that you know nothing." The Bible (Micah) gives us, "what doth the Lord require of thee but to do justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?"   Acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly do not constitute a call to knowledge/education, but to moral intentions.  My father, who stopped school with the 8th Grade, had only a smattering of knowledge of farming and household maintenance, yet in  many respects he met the requirements outlined by Micah, the ancient prophet, and contemporary of Isaiah, Amos, and Hosea.

But: What is justice?  What is mercy?  And humility? Plato wrote The Republic in a sophisticated attempt to answer the first of these questions, and we are no closer to a convincing answer 2500 years later, as we watch the deliberations and decisions of our judicial institutions right up to, and including, the Supreme Court and The Hague's International Court of Justice.

My mind drifts back to those Texas students...Oh, my god, they VOTE. They put people with power over life and death into office!  They choose the person with a finger on the atomic trigger and the assassination drones.  On what basis???  It is pretty obvious that they decide in much the same way they'd decide who to cheer in a TV reality show or which celebrity to listen to for fashion tips, makeup secrets, and advice on sexual relationships.

But what of my educated friends?  More or less the same.  They watch Faux News, read the editorials in the Wall Street Journal, "Like" the pundit's Facebook page, and forward stupid, fictional articles to each other promoting whatever prejudice or hatred is burning inside them that particular weekend.

My father, who walked humbly, and tried to act justly and love mercy,...was also a racist.  After his death, my mother, newly married to a wealthy man, and serving as an officer in the National Women's Banking Association, gave a great deal of money to the "ministry" of Pat Robertson, and other televangelists, who prey upon the naivety of otherwise good people in the name of religion.

My old philosophy teacher in college, Doc Hennigar, used to say, "Democracy is the distilled stupidity of the masses."  Maybe more to the point now, 60 years later, in the age of media, marketing, and post-modernism? H. L. Mencken once said, "Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard."  And: "Civilization, in fact, grows more and more maudlin and hysterical; especially under democracy it tends to degenerate into a mere combat of crazes; the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary."

Mr. Mencken, meet Mr. Trump!

And yet, there's no path better than democracy.  It's not democracy that's the problem, it is the wholesale purchase of voter perceptions, and the systematic subversions set in motion by redistricting, restricting voting rights,  lying commercials, dirty tricks, and a press that is slave to their corporate owners.  It is crooked banks, corrupt deal-makers, ignorant believers in anti-science falsehoods, religious/political duplicity, and criminal mixing of deal-making and public programs.  There is no greater arena for human arrogance, thoughtless group-think, faddist enthusiasms, and exploitative malfeasance than the underbelly of politics--a cheapened model of all nine circles of Dante's hell working at full and evil efficiency.

Human beings are a sick species, made combative, neurotic, violent, and irrational by accidents of evolution and unfortunate social practices.  Inflicting--and watching the infliction of--pain, is a major source of entertainment (consider boxing, rubber-necking expressway delays, crowds at hangings, Roman circuses, etc., etc.) Conservatives are right to mistrust people, and to see the need to set limits on their rapacious instinctual excesses.  But conservatives are wrong in exempting themselves from that analysis, adding arrogant self-misperception to the idiocies that they see in Others.  Leftists are right to identify the cruelties that follow from the concentration of wealth and power in the privileged few, but underestimate the beastly irrationalities that live in the pathologies of all humankind, even those victimized by class systems and criminal political organization.  What's needed is a Nietzschean Marxism, a Freudian socialism, that makes science, rather than ideological and religious nostrums the basis of social organization of power and privilege, with the overarching goal of reducing human misery and increasing human happiness.

But then I may well be wrong.

Those Texas students keep coming back to haunt me.  They know things--maybe they "get" contemporary culture in ways that I do not.  Am I just another old man, transitioning into senility?  I go to gallery openings and museums and shake my head, literally having no idea why those objects are there with those price listings. I go to movies and don't get the jokes or follow the plots. I watch the Superbowl commercials with awe--what the hell is the point of that "puppymonkeybaby" dancing and licking the faces of the couch potatoes in the Mountain Dew commercial?  Kardashians? I can't understand much of any pop music, and never get more than a couple words of rap/hiphop "classics," and turn back to my Cole Porter favorites or albums by Nina Simone and Sinatra.  The academic journals are full of juried articles that seem to me to be pure gibberish (though I do understand some of the more arcane segments of Hegel's  Phenomenology, Merleau-Ponty's theory of la chair, and Husserl's Epoché--that others have called nonsense.) I listen to a speech by Donald Trump, and stand aghast that he is clear front runner for the Republican nomination for President in every demographic. I watch the Supreme Court slap down Obama's climate initiatives, rule for money as protected "speech" in Citizens United, and interpret corporations as "persons" in decisions upholding the rights and advantages of the wealthy, but not the voting rights of the poor. (WTF?, as they say...)

We know nothing, not even that we know nothing.  Our actions and decisions flow from reptilian urges, biological imperatives, pre-cognitive impulses, and murderous struggles for dominance, recognition, and blood-lust.  What a piece of work is man. What is left, but to laugh?  Time, once again, to go read through the Satires of Juvenal, and click on those YouTube videos of monologues by George Carlin. Though I haven't read it, I nominate as best literary title of all time, Wallace's Infinite Jest. "Alas, poor Yorick..."  He knew us well.