Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Credo Quia Absurdum Est (1st half)

The groups in our society that have the most at stake in the preservation and strengthening of competitive capitalism are those minority groups which can most easily become the object of distrust and enmity of the majority-the Negroes, the Jews, the foreign born to mention only the most obvious. Yet, paradoxically enough, the enemies of the free market- the Socialists and Communists-have been recruited in disproportionate measure from these groups. Instead of recognizing that the existence of the market has protected them from the attitudes of their fellow countrymen, they mistakenly attribute the residual discrimination to the market
-Milton Friedman, Freedom and Capitalism

What makes this statement seem especially ridiculous is that the book was originally published in 1962, two years before the civil rights act was passed. By this account then, Jim Crow laws only register as residual discrimination.

And that illustrates what appears so far to be a pattern in Friedman's thinking. He doesn't seem to understand or at the very least does not acknowledge that freedom, his central organizing principle, is itself fraught with contradiction and complexity. Perhaps in a world where these perfectly free markets actually existed minority groups would in fact be better off in supporting competitive capitalist ideals, but in that world, assumedly, this 'residual discrimination' would not have come into existence in the first place.

Because the truth of the matter is that freedom is only meaningful as a foundational principle to the full spectrum of society if we were starting from a point of true equality. But the truth of this world is not only current inequality but a historical legacy of vast inequality and oppression. There is a reason that socialism was particularly appealing to minority groups and to those in poverty in the first half of the twentieth century in America. This reason is the oppression they faced at the hands of the dominant system of the time, which was an unregulated and quite cutthroat competitive capitalism. Certainly, early twentieth century America was closer to the capitalist ideal than the socialist one. Now the question of what is a socialist ideal is a question that Friedman rightly poses. And I'll have to leave that aside for the moment.

Returning to the notion of freedom, we find that even in Friedman's own thought there is no clarity on what freedom is or how it's achieved. As he says:

Indeed, a major source of objection to a free economy is precisely that it does this task (exchange of goods) so well. It gives people what they want instead of what a particular group thinks they ought to want. Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself.

And then, not five pages later:

Indeed, it is important to preserve freedom only for people who are willing to practice self-denial, for otherwise freedom degenerates into license and irresponsibility.

So, people getting what they want when they want it is the crowning achievement of free markets, but the fact that people in fact do this is degenerative and licentious. This is absurd on its face.

The statement from which this blog is titled, which translates as 'I believe because it is absurd', has been attributed to the early Christian apologist (which in the original sense was someone who responds to [here responding to the rise of gnosticism]), Tertullian. What he actually said was was slightly more nuanced and, it would seem, aimed more at the mystical understanding of god in the intellectual irresolvability of paradox, a way and need to go beyond the rational. An idea that came into the West from the great traditions of Eastern religious philosophy, but that was especially apparent in the ideas and arguments about the meaning of the trinity. But anyway.

It could, in its less nuanced form, also apply to Friedman. And that's my generous reading. The other reading of course is that this whole exercise of his, this applique of philosophic principles to his economics, is at heart duplicitious. I'm trying to be generous today, and so I'll just say that it's painfully simple minded (clearly, my generosity knows no bounds).

And to understand the problem, once again, we must look to the intersection of the economic and the spiritual. To the equilibrium of the two mayhaps?

Monday, September 21, 2009

The inevitable rambling Wallace posting

I waited a week to write about DFW or Infinite Jest or anything of the Wallacian nature. I thought I might try last Saturday, but when I saw the picture of Wallace over there on the Infinite Summer website, it just made me too sad to even try to be able to actually think about trying to say something meaningful.

For the most part I read Jest in about 10-25 page increments over the past three months; sometimes a little faster, sometimes a little slower, but always just like a mule. Plodding along through the hills and the dark down there caverns of this tumultuous, twisting book. Some of those caverns were pretty seriously dark. And the highs (Eschaton, for true) were so funny and hilarious, laughing for pages and pages, and the insights that just kept coming at the speed of light, it all brought me in. It all made for me, myself the reader, a warm place by the fire in this book, this work of the greatest art. And the warmth and comfort provided gave Wallace the freedom to explore the darknessses of the world of reality in a way for which I myself, the reader, would be able to look and see without being turned to stone.

Turned to stone by the hard truths of life. The straight no chaser. Those lows. And but then those lows made me want to crawl out of my own skin, and more than once I was tempted to skip ahead, but I plowed through. Going on like a mule. I stayed with it (the Infinite Summer) the whole way, only finally rushing ahead in the last week, this past week.

I've been done since last Monday, I do believe. And I still held out hope the whole way. I thought right up to really about page 970ish or so that it was going to really, in some indeterminant way, come together somehow in some way other than it did. I should've known better when I saw his article about David Lynch and how Tarantino kind of rips Lynch off and commercializes him. And but yet that is the thing about Lynch that I do so love so very much. You always have to construct the story for yourself at least a little bit. I should've guessed that that was where Wallace was gonna end up. Still, I felt deflated at the end. All the air went right out of the sails in that final last eighth of a page (in the paperback blue sky and whisping cloud edition).

And (but) so if you want answers then you're (I'm) gonna have to go find them for myself (yourself [ourselves all together!]). I guess you go back to the beginning and then you fill it in as much as you can as you go through the second time. And maybe that's why the Wallace fans, the ones who just love Wallace (which is where I would put myself right from really within the very first page of the story there in the Year of Glad, although I did doubt him on more than one occasion but only just so very ever so slightly [obviously, I can also be self indulgent if maybe not to so intense and ululatingly powerful an effect]), they, by most accounts many of them, go right back and start back with the second round right away. Which does make sense what with the end being the beginning and all.

And I don't know if I would start back over right now even if I could and had the time (already this semester I've laid out a course of study that is so heavily research intensive to a degree that's just about going to blot out the sun). Those times when Wallace was maybe trying to shock people a little bit, maybe trying to get us to wake up a little more than we do. That stuff was rough. Those two women's back to back AA stories early on. Randy Lenz's detailed cat and then dog killing. Some of the Fackelmann stuff. Poor Tony's crazy final binge out. Ruthless, unvarnished truth of life. Of the most disturbing type. In some ways the proofs of our humanity.

Kate Gompert's first drink or two with Marathe though in retrospect was pretty durn awesome. I know that it probably means bad stuff for her at least in the short term certainly in getting the boot from Ennett, but I was happy to see it. Gompert a little buzzed and not totally crushingly saddened was a pleasurable moment for me. And drinking with and misunderstanding the mad legless philosopher/agent (and possibly double, triple, quadruple, quintuple [who knows to what levels his deception reaches] agent) of the AFR no less.

And but still I was disappointed when it ended in a way that I felt was a little cheesy. A curtain of Sunshine coming down over everything. Somehow though this whole drawn out final scene with Gately and Count Faxula had me laughing uncontrollably on and off for a good solid twenty pages/40 minutes. I laughed so hard around and about Mt. Dilaudid and Lake Urine that I had to stop reading. I still can't see those two names without cracking up hard. Then though it was bordering on the painful. I couldn't stop laughing at these two helpless junkies just junking their way right into an even more fucked up situation than either of them could possibly know, what with P H-J falling out of a tree, and Bobby C finally showing up to see the Faxter for Sorkin with his retinue of drag queens and the strung out pharmacy tech. And the Fax man just cooking and shooting and cooking and shooting. Running out of diluted water and finally going to the lake (which is solely by itself as it's own brand of shocking humor, all alone as this moment of the perfect and purely mixed emotions of comedy and tragedy, I'd say [a kind of strangely poetic lynch pin for this whole crazy novel, maybe in some sort of way]).

Anyway...For the Count it was all done. But the Bimster was just getting his start in life. And but still yet to do all kinds of heroic and good hearted things, if also some serious violence and drug abuse. Who knows how many heroic deeds Don G has left in him or if he will ever get to see what the P.G.O.A.T. looks like behind the veil or how it'd've gone for Hal'n'm I guess up in the Concavity/Convexity out at JOI's grave site. A lot of questions that require further rereading and a quite large dollop of concentrative creative elaboration no doubt.

And that is hands down the thing that amazes most (or one of those things). That a thousand page novel with another hundred pages of end notes/addendums/errata/way more specific information about pharmaceutical drugs both made up and real than you would ever possibly want to know about could possibly send you scurrying back to the beginning of it to start over to try and see what all you missed out on the first go round, that this could happen is nothing short of an amazing feat of writing. It really is a Herculean effort. Trying to put a world this large and detailed together into any kind of coherent work would be virtually impossible for those of us among the mere mortals of the realm.

Wallace for himself was a titan though. No question of his genius, even if you feel it's self indulgent of him to write as he did in Jest (and go read his reportage and see who you think is the self indulgent one. I dare you if you think that). A man with a vocabulary twice the size of most of us mere humans. And a precision of both observation and interpretation of observation non pareil.

So much of the work was drawn from the real area surrounding Boston that from the perspective of a long time Bostonian it was just a whole helluva lot of fun to go through just for that and that alone, forget about all the rest. Inman Square, Cambridge, Allston, the Storrow 500 (very real and hilariously spot on with that one was DFW), the BPL, the Back Bay, et cetera all real and mostly as described. To a degree of the angle.

It was quite a ride, and I do have to say that the timing was bad on some of the no chaser hard truths towards the end as I myself was just not of a mind for such darkness at those moments of time, and it was contributing just a speck for a moment to my own difficulties. And that's why I wouldn't go back except in a period of stability and for essentially a quick few week reread. That's all the time I can imagine for a second round in the next several years though regardless of anything else. Which is certainly somewhat of a bummer. Plus, no way I show so much restraint in reading a book that I'm as into as I was with this one. It's never happened before. Maybe with another collective read via the continuing infsum (I'm out for Dracula, but we'll see what comes up after that), but otherwise on my own, no way. I'm a sprinter when it comes to literature.

I do still imagine this book will be one that I'll return to at more than one juncture in my life if I live a long one, which is something I'm really kind of hoping for, but one never can bank these things for certain. And I look forward with great relish to the time when I can read more of the man's work. A now finite body now. A too finite body quite many would agree. Still, I'm not angry at the man, as apparently some are. I'm sad for him and how black those final days must've been. The depths to which was the reach of his feel. I would sort of guess from this work.

And I know that because of the freshness of his leaving, the pain that still exists about this loss, that it's still difficult to talk about the man himself and his relation to his work. And that more generally sometimes there's a desire to deal with the work and not the life and its relation back to the work, and that that can be an often times useful approach especially in academia, but that there are just such depths in this work that his own capacity for sorrow must have been something that I just know that I for myself probably could not even begin to imagine trying to stay standing and live through. I would guess.

Right now tonight (this morning now) though I'm not trying to do anything but just slightly recall the emotions of the realization last Saturday that it was the one year anniversary of David Foster Wallace's suicide as I was approaching the end of what must've been his master work and would think about this book that I now love as a desert island top five, this infinite jest, this lopsided Serpinski Gasket, and I would know what it means to miss someone you're not even sure you knew. If only for just a flash when I clicked through from Infsum's twitterlink and saw the picture of Wallace with his head down and that sly smile like he's up to something (which quite clearly he most surely always was) and then had the momentary feeling of having had the true sense of the man himself for a flicker of a second, and that had made me feel heavily the weight of this loss that the man himself is gone even as the work lives on.

That's just it though, the work lives on, and the truth of the fact is that this work, if we get it right and get our shit together, this work will be read for eons to come (If we get it right. If we get it really right). The work lives on. Ultimately and at the end of the day, Infinite Jest lives on more than most or at least has that great potential to do so. Ultimately again it's up to the individual reader (collected). We decide for ourselves as we always do as the literary or whatever consumer. Or we try to. Maybe. Maybe we (you) are one of those who stopped 50/75/100/150/185 pages in. Maybe Wallace isn't you're thing. And that's okay, hey, everybody's gotta do and have their own thing.

The only thing that I would ask though, and I ask this with all restraint, respect, and sincerity. Don't trash him, please. Don't trash the man or his work or how it all ended. Not anonymously on the internet or in any way, shape, or form. And I know I'm nobody to ask that, but it just seems like, what with this country and culture so hell bent on vitriol as the new national past time, that I should just put it out there. Be respectful of this man who so clearly put everything he had on the line every time he picked up the pen. And honor that effort with an equal one of your (our) own self (selves).

Surely that's not really totally possible (like I said, Wallace was a titan), but it's still a good thought to end on nonetheless.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The inevitable, rambling, overlong baseball post

Certainly most people who know baseball know John Lester's story. How he was a promising young pitcher who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma when he was 22. How he spent a year in chemotherapy and then came back and at 25 is probably the most dominant left handed pitcher in the game of baseball right now. He's just recently broken Bruce Hurst's record for most strikeouts in a single season by a Sox lefty and was totally on point last Sunday evening out at Fenway Park, allowing three hits and no runs over eight innings.

I saw it live and in person from the State Street pavilion half way up the third base line, which it was my first time to sit up there, and I do have to say that it was really just totally pretty awesome. You're looking down on the field from way up high and but you feel so close like being right on top of the field, and you get a really clear view of how well Lester commands both sides of the plate, how much movement his fastball has, how devastating his cut fastball really is. It just bends right at the plate, virtually unhittable when he's got it working. It was a joy to see it.

I went on Tuesday as well and got to see Daisuke take the mound for the first time since June, and he was solid, went right after hitters, and got the K's when he needed them. And at every big strike out the crowd was right behind him. Getting to their feet, yelling, clapping, shouting their support (or disdain for like Figgins or whoever [which really how can you not like Chone Figgins?]). The nation was roaring for the K, for the kill. And while I think it's great that he got such support and a standing O when he left the mound for the dugout with one on and no outs in the seventh with a pat on the back from Tito and a tip of his cap to the hollering crowd, I still think it's just really shitty that Sox fans are so quick to boo their own team's players when those players are struggling.

Matsuzaka was booed off the mound back in June after being 33-15 in his first two years here after making the switch from the Japanese puro yakyuu (only three other pitchers had better records over that span, and one of them got a Cy and an eight year, 230ish million dollar contract with the Yankees for his troubles [And I know Matsuzaka's outings were consistently flukish and mostly short over that period; still they were consistently wins]). They booed Takashi Saito (who has an ERA in the 3.40 range as of this writing and was down in the twos maybe when it happened) as he was about to (I repeat about to) give up the losing run in what had been a tie game since the sixth on one of Penny's better starts just before the break. I don't understand why you would boo your own pitcher right as he's trying to send the game into extra innings, even if he did just walk the bases full. Course they booed Lugo a lot before he was put on waivers. And then there's the fact that Red Sox fans will forever have the distinction of being the only fans in baseball probably ever to have booed John Smoltz. That's really, really classy folks.

In retrospect, the idea that John Smoltz and/or Brad Penny could each/either both come back from serious injuries and make the switch to the American League was some serious wishful thinking. I admit, I thought it could work, but now that I think back, it doesn't seem like it really ever could've. Penny has no reliable secondary pitch. He's a fastball pitcher all the way. Even with perfect location, there's no way you can make that work in the long run against AL lineups. And the Smoltz project was even more pie in the sky, I now also see. Here's a guy that basically had to reinvent himself then now that his fastball is in the high eighties/ low nineties, down from the high nineties even just a few years ago basically because he went to the bullpen for so many years and pitched the middle of his career out of the pen amassing no less than 254 saves. I think. Still, now that he's older, there's just no more blowing guys away with the heat.

Pinpoint accuracy, finesse, a little deception, and at least one out pitch are the barest of necessaries in order to find success in the AL East. Smoltz's slider was real when he could get it to fall, but he was having trouble throwing it for strikes all the way from his starts with the triple-A PawSox onward, and his then now slow fastball (by Major League standards at least) becomes a meatball if it catches any of the middle of the plate and the hitter's looking for it. Trying to figure out how to deal with all of that and a DH and coming off major shoulder surgery was a lot to ask. I mean, coming back and starting at 42 and trying to figure all that out in what is unquestionably the toughest division in all of baseball was never going to be easy. Add to that the pressure of playing for the BoSox. Only a very slight chance that whole project ever had. And I still wonder what would've happened if they'd offered or he'd accepted a set-up role in the Boston pen (Saito was able to make the transition even returning from injury), and for example Buchholz had come on as the fifth. Would we be looking down at the Yankees and not up? Who can say if that wouldn't've been too soon to bring the kid up. If he'd've had his confidence all the way back by then (which he sure does now, and even though Lester was great, I was a little sorry that I didn't get to see Clay as planned before the rain out Friday pushed Sunday's schedule forward).

I did say before the season last year that it would be too much pressure getting regular turns in the rotation for either Lester or Clay. Actually I said it was gonna be too much pressure for both of them, and that it was too soon, but I was only right about Buchholz. Lester was the rock last year. Number two from May on and the number one starter for most of the season and into the post season right up to that top shelf game seven performance when he got only just barely out pitched by Garza in the ALCS, throwing a No against Kansas City at some point along the way to there (a defeat to the Tampa Bay Rays in the American League Championship series, sending them onto the World Series and the Sox into the off season).

Still, two rookie starting pitchers on one of the most high pressure teams in all of major league sports, especially with the expectations for Clay after having already thrown a no hitter in the second start of his career back at the end of '07 (a thing that even some of the greatest pitchers retire without having ever done), there was very little chance that that wouldn't be too much. Course Lester probably has a little more perspective on the whole thing than Clay (who just recently got engaged to a suitcase model from that Howie Mandel show with the suitcases for whatever that's worth) what with the hair loss and the facing of death that is the battle with cancer. Even still I say that the 45 million dollar contract coming almost right before the season opened spun Lester's head a bit and had him a little distracted and contributed to his early struggles this year. I would suggest to Theo that it's surely a good idea to get those things done earlier in the off season and certainly before spring training if at all possible.

See, the pressure in Boston baseball is not just the bright media spotlight (and top quality sports writing from both the Globe and the Herald [and also some pretty rudely jerk-off column writing from both as well]), it's not just the park (which can be pretty hitter friendly at times [although can also be a huge home field advantage with its' strange dimensions, passionate fans, and of course the green monster]), it's also the rivalry. Having to try and keep pace with the New York Yankees (especially this particular year's second half, holy mother what?!) and their unmatched revenue streams as their main rival has been difficult for the home team here in Beantown, especially when the division they are already both in boasts a third team that beat out both of these teams and went all the way to the Series before being beaten by Philly last year even if they have now faded back to 500 after being swept by the Sox this past weekend (of which Lester was the final game going against James Shields) and are now fully out of the hunt. As well as Roy Halladay coming around for Toronto (who pulled the reverse of their usual and started strong before fading just before the break) and the still potentially damaging Baltimore line up (even if they are 2-15 against the Sox this year [the most totally lopsided it's been in a while]).

But because there is no profit sharing amongst the teams in baseball each team essentially controls the rights for its own markets and just gets paid per by ESPN or Fox or whatnot for the weekly Saturday and Sunday baseball on what must just be a season to season basis for whichever few good match ups get picked up. Substantial monies go to the players and MLB of the post-season receipts from whoever makes it to where ever, so the real source of money for a team is in stadium receipts and cable television revenues from the regular season. And in this regard New York just cleans everybody's clock. There is no more lucrative sports market in all of the world than NYC.

Which is why New York has two of every major sport. A good one and a shitty one often, although still even more often lately two shitty ones. And less occasionally these days two good ones. They haven't really had the kind of sports luck (or perhaps acumen is the right word here [heh, heh]) that Boston has had this new millenium in general sports success. Still, the Yankees do and always will have more money than every other team in baseball without, dare I say this, regulation. The New York Yankees payroll, relatively speaking, claims the largest differential between its main rival, the Boston Red Sox, of any rivalry payroll differential of any and all professional sports rivalries. In '08 it was 135 to 240 something. A difference of over 100 million dollars. That's still a lot of bread. I don't care how much money the Fed just printed or the banks and the markets've lost.

And for a lot of reasons that team has been less and less successful for the past 10 or so years (to the great enjoyment of Bostonians and Red Sox Nation generally). And even after going out and spending 400 million (over a period of years) for three big time free agent signings over the off season [and overpaid by half for at least two of them, but we'll just have to wait and see about that]), they still struggled early as Alex Rodriguez was swamped with the steroid allegation and then went down with an injury, and Sabathia, Texiera, and Burnett all started slow. Finally though we saw what that team could do as they just destroyed the Sox in the middle serieses (Can you pluralize series? I guess the second plural is just sort of assumed to be understandable from the context) of the season, winning 4 or 5 games straight and starting with the broom in the Bronx over three back in August.

The bombers didn't get here on pace to easily win 100 without the Sox taking several of the early series (es) themselves though. I believe it was three. Three beautiful sweeps that is (even if one was only a two gamer and doesn't really count as a series). Still, this tells you how well the Yanks have been playing since the break that the Sox are five games back even with eight straight early season wins against 'em. Those were good times, I do gotta say. I will always always for the rest of my life always and forever enjoy watching or listening to the Sox beat the Yanks or reading it in the paper the next day or even just going to and checking the box scores and quick run down, which is mostly all I get to do these days. Always will get up for that.

Yes, the Sox are trailing right now as we're coming down to the wire but only by five games and only by four losses. Which means the AL East pennant is still on the table, if within a fairly close reach for the bombers. This road trip the Sox are currently on is the key as it ends in NYC for 3. (Just quick, yo, the key is NYC for three. And also just quick, what up with the new Yankee stadium. It's a damn launching pad. I swear they did that on purpose somehow.) The hometown heroes here in Boston've just about clinched a wild card spot at the very least as Texas is on the fade as we head down the stretch, and surprisingly it's not their pitching that's the problem. It's been their hitting here recently, which is pretty odd as the Rangers have been one of the best hitting teams in the game for quite sometime and still sport a dangerous if hard slumping line up. It's really just been this year that their young crop of pitchers had finally been successful. And then they get shut out for like two and a half games, maybe longer. And now they're all but done for the year.

As for Boston's staff, way back in spring training, a lot of people were saying that the BoSox's starting rotation might be the strongest in baseball, and for most of the season those people were mostly wrong. All of a sudden, right when things are getting serious, it just looks like they might end up where we all thought they were gonna be way back when. That rules the schoolyard.

Also, Vlad Guerrero looks like he's getting ready to join Mel Gibson's Braveheart crew and bash some skulls when he's warming up on deck swinging that bat around behind his head all crazy, and Gary Mathews Jr. has about the widest, most bent legged batting stance I've ever seen. Also again, Billy Wagner has a pretty funky delivery his own bad self. The guy looks like he's throwing a knuckleball, but then the ball kinda zooms out of his hand to the plate. It's really weird looking and really effective. He'll get his four hundredth save next year for somebody fer sure. And Shields's set move when he's about to throw is this quick sweeping sideward motion to the set. Also weird, although not ultimately very effective this season.

I have to say, Sox fans are like lost puppy dogs. They seem to wander around aimlessly, making it virtually impossible to move in the walkways underneath the stands. They stand around in the middle of these walkways. Bunching up especially at the various entrances out to the stands; at the very focal point of all traffic is where people always stop. Obnoxious does not even begin. Riding the T with everyone is pretty crappy too because there's never enough cars for at least an hour before and an hour after every game, so it's like sardines that T riding is. And I cannot say enough about how much I dislike Sweet Caroline as Red Sox nation's theme song. I don't mean to be mean, but, seriously, like seriously seriously, we need a new theme already. Not only does the song suck, but it's also all the way tired now after how many years of being played at virtually every home game? They've played it once a game at every one I've been to over the past three years almost without fail. I do love the music Alex Gonzalez and Victor Martinez stand in to though. Some kind of double time Caribbean stuff. Really pretty rad. And lastly I wonder if Pedey picked Dr. Dre for himself or if that's meant as some kind of joke (I would guess not as it's been his music since at least last season [It still does seem funny to me though that Dustin Pedroia stands in to Dre]).

Okay then, I'd say that's enough baseball talk (as if that's even possible, hah!).

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Moral perfection or the lack thereof

I believe that it is not a matter of the church requiring its ministers to accept a series of dogmas. How could they honestly say that they have no doubts about any of these dogmas? If they had no doubts, they would hardly be very good Christians, because the intellectual life is as ambiguous as the moral life. And who would call himself morally perfect? How then could someone call himself intellectually perfect? The element of doubt is an element in faith itself.
-Paul Tillich, A History of Christian Thought (From his lectures at Union Theological Seminary)

There's a complicated history with the problem of doubt in the Christian church. It was under Calvin and therefore of great influence in Protestantism in general that absolute faith became the inward sign of salvation. If you doubted as a Calvinist or a Puritan or an early Congregationalist, then that was it. You were not one of the elect, and you were not saved. And there was nothing you could do about it. You were destined to burn in hellfire for all of eternity. No amount of good works would change that.

This was a abrupt departure from the Catholic church and undoubtedly a reaction to the corruptions of the church in selling indulgences for sin. Under Calvin there could be no such corruption of the church because it was not within its ministers power to offer such things. God had already chosen before creating creation, I suppose.

Predetermination always seemed a little crazy to me. I do remember at one time looking at the arguments reconciling freewill and predetermination, and, while I can't actually remember them now, I remember there were some seriously unnecessary philosophical acrobatics involved. Kind of like digging a tunnel underneath an invisible and not really real wall.

While, I believe, most modern protestant sects don't embrace the concept of predetermination, absolute faith still seems to remain as a cornerstone of the general Christian religion. As Tillich points out, absolutes are pretty much impossible for human beings. Absolute faith is impossible as is absolute understanding, which is the twin here of absolute faith. The point of the book of Job wasn't that god's a sadist, but that humans don't understand really what's the what. The logic of God is not a logic that our finite minds can really fully grasp.

No doubt a great part of this emphasis on faith over thought has a lot to do with the Enlightenment and the clash between science and religion that's been going on since they locked up Galileo for heresy. Also surely an important political aspect of the protestant splintering. Faith may have more to do with maintaining the integrity of the various sects' structures and keeping adherents from contemplating other options than its connection to serving to bring people closer to God. Which strikes me as ultimately counter productive. If a religious institution is engaging in dogmatic requirements for political reasons, the flock is ill served. An ill served flock is a wayward one. I would guess.

Anywho, Tillich makes a similar point but in reference to ideas and earlier times:

Salvation in Stoicism is a salvation through reaching wisdom. In Christianity salvation is brought about by divine grace. These two approaches are in conflict with each other to the present day.

It seems kinda' nutzo to think that wisdom and grace are in conflict. There's no inherent conflict between these two, and that's one of Tillich's main points. There doesn't have to be a conflict between faith and reason, religion and philosophy. The conflict is a conflation of human logic with the more direct logic of infinity. Maybe. Tillich is all about synthesis, and I love that. Let's work it all out. It's not easy, but it sure ain't impossible. Infinite possibility exists in humanity's bold future.

Alright, enough with the religion already. Going to the second half of a double header tonight and then again on Tuesday to see Matzuzaka's hopefully triumphant return to the mound. I sure do hope the Dice man can salvage something from his lost season and help the Sox down the stretch here. I guess it was inevitable that the Yankees would eventually field a team that could dominate. I mean, how many years can you have a player payroll that's at least 100 million dollars more than any other team and as much as two hundred mil more than some and still suck.

A lot of us here in Boston were hoping that the answer to that question was forever, but no luck. Ah, September baseball. You make me forget all my cares, if only for a moment.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

democracy of the mind

About eight or nine years ago I was taking a class on contemporary drama at the U of Memphis, and while I was working on a paper on Tom Stoppard's play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, I came across an article in the journal Modern Language Review that explored the way this play related to consciousness theory. I don't recall the specifics, but the general idea was that the audience represented memory. Roz and Guild were sort of bumbling idiots outside of those few passages from Hamlet because the audience has no memory of these characters outside of their representations within that play.

It was somewhere along those lines, but the brief glimpses of neuroscience that the article provided were the starting point for my own forays into neuroscience, philosophy of mind, and consciousness theory. I spent several years fairly focused (for me [which is still not so much]) on this study, and a few semesters after this first glimpse, while taking a class on political philosophy and reading Locke's 2nd treatise of gov't, I spent one Sunday night pacing around the attic, chain smoking cigarettes, and trying to work out a clearer picture of what is just a small passage from that work on the dangers of material excess, which I felt was a key to unlocking my own interpretations of the work as a whole. At that stage I had a still pretty hazy knowledge of neuroanatomy, but I had a grip on the basics. At some late hour, I came to develop my theory of mental resonance in this mad pacing thought session that is still the foundation of my understanding of the role and value of spirituality.

The basic idea is that there are all these systems of the brain that are interacting all the time, and there's surely as much disagreement within the mind as there is in the world. Most of this occurs below consciousness, but undoubtedly feeling, thought, and action are heavily influenced by this neurological chatter. When there's dissonance between the systems, one system has to dominate and therefore tamp down on disagreement. How this process happens is a complicated mess of complexity and abstractional layering, and I wouldn't pretend to even feel close to having a grip on that. Consciousness is a slippery concept and agency is difficult nay impossible to locate precisely.

So, in my mind, excess is the result of this mental dissonance and a kind of unconscious political fight for control of conscious experience and expression. The type of excess and immoderation that Locke was talking about was the result of this disagreement in (possibly) concert with maybe socially skewed rational processes of the neocortex. The further idea was that mental resonance was what the spiritual experience was. I came to this conclusion based on my own experiences of meditation which can be this kind of hyper-awareness, a feeling that consciousness is expanded and the filter is removed a little bit. A way to get the mind synced up and not talking at cross purposes.

Last year I worked up a presentation for a social psychology class about how this internal process related to the externalities of social interaction. And I really wish it had been a paper and not a presentation because all I have are some vague notes and nothing clearly articulated. Here's just a bit of those notes:
Internal resonance of the mind is an internal democratic process. Must be internally democratic for healthy cognition (read: balanced mind), and therefore able to be democratic in relation to others so as not to dominate.

The idea was that outward autocratic behavior was a projection of this unconscious internal process of dominance. I didn't at the time explore how this dominance came to be or whether this mental resonance would always return similar outcomes across personalities, but I see now these are important questions. And not ones that I have any kind of answers for, for now.

In the previous post, I suggested quickly that this idea of unconditionality (which can be found in one form or another in just about all mystic writings from all different sects and religions) was related to Rousseau's general will, which was itself the ideal political expression and the thing that magistrates (Rousseau's term for gov't officials) should aim for. All these things raise a lot of questions in terms of both ideals and pragmatics, and certainly the fact that Rousseau was the most influential thinker in the French revolution doesn't exactly inspire confidence in his ideas. Course, philosophers have been often misunderstood, which is a problem of the discipline as well as a problem of heuristic human tendencies (and if these are natural tendencies [which cognitive psychology suggests] then what does this mean for democratic consciousness?).

I had a clearer point in my head when I was running this stuff earlier today, but I guess I'm just gonna have to say that I think it's interesting that these ideas appear in such different places as Christian mysticism and 18th century political philosophy. Rousseau never explores any of the spiritual implications of his idea, and settles on The Lawgiver as a way to give expression to this general will. Probably where Lenin got his dictatorship of the proletariat (as if those consolidating power ever really need philosophical backing), but I digress.

Oh, wait. I remember now. So, neuroscientific studies of meditation have sort of verified a portion of my theory in that they found high levels of synchronous electrical activity in the various systems of the brain during meditation. Mental resonance does in fact take place during meditation (and can I just reiterate that I worked that out through introspection, basic neuroanatomy, and logical induction, and, yes, that does make me a badass [in my own admittedly dissonant mind at least]). Returning to the the notion of both unconditionality and the general will being more than just the sum of there parts, I would suggest that this is also true of this gamma wave synchronous mental resonance. The resonant state is the mystical experience that is itself the heavy duty, full-on version of the spiritual experience. And that that experience is itself the absolute intensity of ecstatic human experiential possibility, which is greater than the sum of the dissonantial potentialities all tallied up nice and neat.

Clearly, there's miles left to go with this argument, and certainly my point is not that people who don't engage specifically in transcendental meditation are not all they can be or anything. I'm just not sure as a society we can get anything close to an expression of this ideal, the general will, in a society that on balance lacks spiritual rituals and experience or as a collection of individuals who mostly eschew these potentially mentally resonant states. I also think that in a heterogeneous society those rituals have to be developed personally and no set of 'Here you go, now go to town' paint-by-numbers rituals can be symbolic in the Jungian sense. The hard choices of freedom or some such.

Like I said, miles to go here. Shoulder pain is starting to overwhelm my capacity to sit in a chair, so I'm calling it here.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The General Will

"the Unconditional is related to all finite things, yet it is not one among them or all of them taken together. Moreover, it 'stands over against' all things of the finite world (including the concept of God) and at the same time is the dynamic ground of existence and meaning."
-James Luther Adams' introduction to Paul Tillich's essay collection, What is Religion

Adams' description of Tillich's idea of infinity, essentially, seems meant as this mysticality that is a direct connection to the natural world and through it to this beyondness that is always present in mystical teachings. The serious mysticism has always been the source of the most profound knowledge and wisest judgment that humanity has ever developed, it strikes me. The lives and teachings of the mystics have always been the source of true moral examplarism. Perhaps more attention should be paid, but I'm already getting away from myself.

There will always be more to say about the place for true saints and mystics in the future of humanity (I predict and hope), but what I wanted to jot down here was what this idea of infinity as a thing lacking all conditions kind of knocked loose in my head about the comparisons here to Rousseau's general will.

This idea that the infinite is not just the collection of all finite things made me think about this idea that is at the heart of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's The Social Contract, which is this idea of the general will. The general will is what the sovereign (which in his formulation was the collection of all persons in a commonwealth [1762]) aims to express through its gov't. Or what the gov't is supposed to help create for the people. Or something. But the general will is not simply the collection of all the particular wills of each individual person within this commonwealth; it's more than just what people want and get and have and keep.

It's just about here that I have to strike out on my own from Rousseau as it's been some five years since I read the material, but this connection that Adams makes about Tillich's thought (and I'm very excited to start reading the man himself tomorrow or the next day) of the Unconditional as this rerepresentation of religious experience. An attempt to recapture the individual spiritual experience at the heart of what religion was always supposed to be about. This idea of infinity is a way to try to experience the reality of this that lies behind the symbol. If that symbol actualizes this experience of knowledge and being of the infinite, then perhaps you can access the general will. That's not Roussseau's point. Nor, would I say, is this spiritual route the only access to this kind of unconditional social good. (And really how did this idea of the social [with its ism] become so hated and despised because of autocratic, dogmatic, fairly idiotic 'Communism'? Is that really the smartest move for us as a, ya know, society?)

A point here is, as Pemulis says, the map is not the territory. I think people get confused sometimes. I know I do, and I'm pretty much going to have to stop now cause I'm getting numbness in two of the fingers on my left hand. And that's starting to freak me out. Remind me to tell you about my current attempts to find an orthopedist thru my so amazingly awesome it's universally reviled company-wide private insurance plan. Stopping now, shooting pains in my arm.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

center/balance/whisps of ghosts trailing into the background

A funk. I'm in it. All the way out and back again.

It just creeps up on me every several months or so, and suddenly the existentiality of life just gets to be too much for a while, and the whole thing just seems so pointless. Such an utterly useless waste of precious time to be here thinking and doing and going around and around. And I know in my head that it's just a neurologic event. It's just the waxing and waning of the neurochemical tides, and there's really very little I can do about the feeling. The feeling is the feeling. It's just what happens sometimes and how things are.

It's in the thoughts and the actions that some semblance of control, of choice, exists. I can be philosophical about it.

There's a section of Infinite Jest round about page 800 or so in which Wallace talks about it. First in discussion of Kate Gompert and then about Hal. And while that section about Gompert was just about the most desolate piece of perfect writing and description of depression I've ever come across, he then talks about how Hal uses his intelligence and abstraction as a way to distance himself from his feelings, as a means to stay above the anhedonia. A kind of coping mechanism that only furthers the problem or something. I'm forgetting now exactly how his line of reasoning went, but the idea was that abstraction was essentially an unhealthy means of distancing the self from the feelings of the self.

On one level that makes a lot of sense. The anhedonia, the blah-state that every depressively minded individual knows intimately, the state that is my own personal default and the thing that I fight against a lot of the time, in that state abstraction can be a kind of way to kind of triangulate yr feeling-like state in what that state might be supposed to be. Instead of letting your feelings be your feelings, you try to construct the proper feelings. None of this is Wallace's point, he was more going for the distance problem, and I should go back and reread that section instead of trying to just recreate it from my hazy remembrances [edited to say: that was one of his points. One of his many, many really good points (or amazingly accurate {seeming} interpretations of reality)]. That whole section sort of hit me like a brick. Not since reading An Unquiet Mind was I so caught by a piece of writing as describing something that I knew intimately but never imagined someone else could describe or even understand (as DFW describes it, you just can't imagine that anyone else could know what it's like while yr up in it, even if they suffer from that same underlying neurologic issue. It's a total cipher-like self-referential thing), as I still don't even pretend to understand it for myself much of the time. In my better moments at least.

So, there's some type of abstractional connection to anhedonia, to the blah. Abstraction furthers the blah by distancing the self farther afield from the feelings, maybe. And there is truth to this. It's just that there's also this it. There's these feelings of blackness and nothing and total usurpation of meaning by meaninglessness. These feelings of painful longing for non-existence. This neurologic sadness. And in that state the best and only thing is to distance yourself from the feeling, which isn't really possible, not in the midst of it. All you can do is mediate, maybe just a touch. Crouch down behind yr shield and try to deflect the blow. That's really the best hope. Without some type of medication or like alcoholic type drinking that never ends or fully spiritual existence. That's my personal great hope; that spirituality is the possible out.

But who knows? So far, no good. So far the serotonergic/dopaminergic rollercoaster continues. Still, I don't think I could do it without abstraction. Course part of that is that abstractiveness is a large chunk of my personal life's meaning and wanting to understand is not some type of put on or meant as cocktail hour conversational fodder or anything like that. I feel a need to understand, like if I don't further this need then I'll just turn to dust and whirl away in the wind. Plus, there is no feeling that even comes close to that feeling of discovery, that moment when some little piece of the puzzle fits in place and a whole cascade of logicalities come tumbling out of that moment of unlocking, and suddenly your mind is just on fire. You can feel the electrical currents coursing through the system. You can feel the ideas in your fingertips. Or maybe that's just me (or maybe that's just mania).

And writing helps. It always makes me feel better, even when nothing much results from it. No great mystery solved, no brilliant words strung together into a chain of infinite meaning, nothing really but the equivalent of dribbling spittle out the corners of the mouth. (And really, what is Wallace's obsession with saliva or the lack thereof. I don't entirely get that.) It doesn't have to matter or mean or anything. And that's what I like about blogging. This open-endedness of possibility. Talk about the self, talk about the day, talk about yr ideas, talk about whatever the fuck you want to talk about. It's all good, and I feel better, regardless.