Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Universe of Things

Eric Schliesser quotes from the book he is reviewing, Steven Shaviro’s The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism  (“Throwing caution to the wind,” TLS, 6/26/15) thusly, “our very experience of the world can take place only under conditions of our own making.” The quote refers to a philosophical theory called, “correlationism.” But no matter. Every once in a while a concept in philosophy whether it’s analytic or metaphysical can catch you up short. You think you know what it means and yet you don’t. However, you still can’t get the phrase out of your mind. It’s like being punched in the stomach. The lack of comprehension winds you in a good way and makes you want to fill in the blanks. If one were an academic philosopher rather than just an itinerant reader of the TLS which regularly covers tomes of philosophy in way that comparable journals in America (The New York Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books) don’t then one would know where the sentence is coming from and naturally be able to look at the whole thing contextually. Yet a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing and in the case at hand ignorance may turn out to be bliss since it leaves one haunted by the mysterious line with its dauntingly poetic epistemology. You can just see a seminar table full of Oxford dons smiling indulgently at the cave dweller trying to parse the shadows of ideas he knows little about as they flit across the scrim of consciousness. You might be tempted to call up your grad student friend at NYU and get the real deal. However sometimes a rose is just a rose. It’s almost nicer to relish the world of implications and irresolution that reside in Shaviro’s uncanny proposition.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Temple, Is Real?

Big Bang diagram by Gnixon at English Wikipedia
Being a part of things, whether it be a church or congregation, political movement, support group, or sexual identity that is the product of politics and predicated on making a political statement (whether hetero, homo, bi, transgender or polymorphous perverse) is an illusion that is easily dispensed with by death. At this significant moment in the life of an individual the utter isolation of the human condition is most dramatically stated. Locked in the final resting form, whether embalmed, gently decomposing, or cremated—once the off switch is pulled, the cadaver is no longer a part of the human race or any of its proxies. In Night of the Living Dead, the director, George Romero, portrayed a race of zombies who reek havoc on the living. But however horrific, Romero’s movie is merely wishful thinking. When you think about it the condition of first non-being, preceding existence and then death for those creatures lucky or unlucky enough to have emerged into existence is a more accurate description of the disposition of organic matter than so-called “living" which is only a flash in the pan. The life, for instance, of our planet (approximately 4.5 billion years) is a mere footnote to time when we consider that the Big Bang occurred approximately 13.8 billion years ago. “We are the stuff that dreams are made on and our little life is rounded with a sleep,” says Prospero. And bad dreams at that. Human life is like one of those reality TV shows where the stars are arrested for fraud (“'Real Housewives of New Jersey’ Stars Teresa and Joe Giudice Sentenced,” CNN, 10/2/14). Plato had it right we are all living in a dark cave in which the shadows of a reality we will never know are merely reflected on the walls.

Monday, September 28, 2015

What is Family?

What is a family? From a linguistically fundamentalist point of view, it’s defined by parentage and bloodlines, though adoption creates a new contingency which obviates the genetic connection. Adopted children pose interesting questions regarding nature and nurture to the extent that they retain the genetic material of their biological parents. Tolstoy famously opined about families in Anna Karenina,  “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” And he pointed to the conflict between individuals and the families they have grown up in, that began with nineteenth  century romanticism, where individuality, self-definition and self-invention would become a dominant element in cultural evolution. There are children whose lives seem to be no reflection of their upbringing and parents who can’t understand how they have begotten criminals and sociopaths. This has been recently dramatized in HBO's The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst. John Edgar Wideman, the well-known African-American writer has a brother, Robert, serving a life sentence for murder (Wideman wrote about their relationship in Brothers and Keepers) and a son, Jacob, also serving a life sentence for a murder he committed when he was only 16.  Is a successful and happy child well-brought up? Is a child who's troubled the product of a poor upbringing? The latter often can produce great chest pounding and self-flagellation. Human intentions and motives are hard to parse and parents often carry emotional wounds and baggage they themselves are not entirely aware of. But even more important where does the family end and the individual begin? In geopolitical terms this is demonstrated in the concept of states rights which is constantly tested by the federal government. The recent battles over same sex marriage are just one case in point. There are still tribal societies, but most of the Western world, at least, functions on a level where blood ties have increasingly little importance. In the modern American family parents exercise a certain degree of authority over a child as he or she is growing up. Yet by adulthood most Americans create their own identities with regard to sex, religion and politics. A biological family can exist in name only, with real family being created through membership in a  close knit society or in devotion to a cause. Veterans and survivors of life threatening diseases may have a stronger bond with their compadres than with their parents, brother or sisters, despite the famous Sister Sledge song "We Are Family." The French philosopher Giles Deleuze and analyst Felix Guattari wrote Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, in which they inveighed against the family as a useful term in understanding human sexuality.You may feel uncomfortable when the leader of your organization addresses the collectivity as “family," but the linguistic slip is indicative of the degree to which the notion of family is evolving.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Google’s Driverless Car

Google has just announced the appointment of the head of their self-driving car division. These basically driverless cars--really sea level drones--are one of the proudest products of the artificial intelligence industry, of which Techglomerates like Google obviously regard as the future of the race (“Google Hires Auto Veteran to Lead Self-Driving Car Project,” NYT, 9/13/15). The question is where is the driverless car going and in general what will happen when artificial intelligence takes over where those of humans leave off (Google X is in fact the mysterious name given to the division formerly run by Sebastian Thrun and devoted to these kinds of “heady” explorations)? For instance, if you have ever been at a boring dinner party, one of those sit down affairs populated by stuffy academics where everyone competes for their 15 minutes of fame, you will realize how much more fun it would be to have dinner with a computer. In the movie Her that’s exactly what happens when Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his Siri like operating system (whose voice is played by Scarlet Johansson). But let’s say you get in your newly acquired driverless car thinking you’re going to a meeting. Naturally the intelligence at the wheel will want to put on some tunes and if it’s a nice day it might go for some 60’s Beach Boys oldies like “Don’t Worry Baby,” “I Get Around” or “Surfer Girl.” All of a sudden you will find your driverless Subaru veering of the Long Island Expressway and onto the Meadowbrook which leads to Jones Beach. Even though it’s your car, you have given the wheel over to something else which like Christine, the car in the Stephen King novel, obviously has a mind of its own. Who are you to argue? You will try to rationalize saying OK I’m playing hooky from my job, but my driverless car knows what’s best for me. It has one of the most advanced motherboards in the country or even universe. Well, you end up having a nice day and even meet a cool chick, but it’s really time to get home. You shower and climb into the car thinking you’re on your way and you will get back in time to make up for your absence with a top rate power point the next day. Your focus groups will really go nuts and you’ll become a marketing guru. But lo, your driverless car has other ideas in mind. It seems to want to hit a bar on the way home and what’s worse it goes for those dives. You sit baking in the tawdry parking lot with its buckling concrete and are forced to wait until your driverless car has had enough, whatever that means for AI’s, who don’t drink, but are looking for action anyway. You could take a walk, but it's your car and you still want to know what its plans are and where it’s going. You open the glove compartment and look for something in the manual that tells you how to get a driverless car back under your control. However, that’s the one thing missing since the whole essence of the driverless car is that it has no driver. Light, brakes, engine maintenance are all covered, yet there’s nothing about proxies or decision making. There’s nothing even about what happens to your driverless car when you die. Will the car simply take care of itself and continue to perform it’s alternate side of the streets parking tasks and annual NYS vehicle inspection? Will it embark on one of those trips across the country? Your mind goes back to that first day in the showroom. You had a funny feeling about the car, which you were afraid to acknowledge. It seemed willful, even there, like it had a mind of its own. Now you see you were right. You start having second thoughts. If you hadn’t bought a driverless car, you might not have gotten into this mess in the first place.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Unanswered Prayers

“There are more tears shed over answered prayers than over unanswered prayers," runs the famous line from Saint Teresa of Avila. There’s probably some degree of poetic justice in the fact that the novel, Answered PrayersTruman Capote chose to name after the quote was unfinished--particularly since there is something intrinsically unresolvable as regards the effect of all prayers. At it’s most elemental, prayer is an admission of powerlessness. If you felt powerful there would be no need to pray. You’d simply take care of the problem yourself. But there's something in most prayer that mitigates against the notion that there's anyone who can attend to your plight or fulfill you wish. Many religions, for example, reject the notion of praying for things. Which goes back to the St Teresa quote. You may know what you want, but do you know what you need? If you get the job or snag the partner you think you desire, you may be settling for a dead end.  When one door closes another opens is a homily that used to rationalize unanswered prayers. Instead of praying for things, you pray for something over which you fundamentally have more control, i.e. acceptance or the willingness to abide by God’s will, if you believe in a God. There’s also something repetitive and boring about prayer. When you pick up a traditional prayer book you’ll find so many phrases glorifying and praising God that the act of praying actually seems like a form of people pleasing, though such cynical interpretations discountenance the incantatory nature of prayer. Once you get over the boredom, prayer can have the soothing quality of a dirge. You wish and you want and you’re mournful, but you find solace in congregating and finding a commonality in the recitation of shared emotions. So there's a curious topography to this ancient ritual that often produces a joy (and in the case of certain sects an ecstatic out of body experience) but little in the way of clear cut results. Perhaps the most profound thing about prayer and the thing that accounts for its mournful quality is that it anticipates and even exults in its own futility.