Friday, March 27, 2009

Today, We Are All Kantians

Not too much to report from this part of the world this week.

On Tuesday, I saw a girl - probably 18- or 19-years old - on the morning Red Line reading a heavily highlighted and underlined print-out copy of Kant's Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals. This girl, I'm betting that she's a freshman or sophomore in college, possibly enrolled in a Philosophy 101 class or maybe even an introductory law or Western Civ course, looked exhausted, like she hadn't slept in days. When I looked over her shoulder at her dog-eared papers, I could see that she had marked them up in at least three different colors of ink, plus two different highlighter pen shades (yellow and pink!) and even had a sticky note or two sticking out from between pages. I imagine that she had some kind of test that morning, or that she was headed to the library to finish her midterm paper that was due at 5 p.m.; quite possibly she had been up all night taking notes feverishly about when one does or does not have the moral right to lie, the differences between freedom and autonomy, and trying to parse Kant's ridiculously long and convoluted sentences, a strange habit of his that has, unfortunately, blighted much of the landscape of philosophical writing since.

Part of me felt sorry for her. But not a big part. She was, after all, having the luxury of reading Kant on the morning commute. Another part of me wanted to start shouting pop quiz questions right then and there: "Quick! Name three different formulations of the categorical imperative! Under what circumstances does Kant believe that an agent does or does not receive moral credit for his actions? Why does Kant think that certain moral duties be known by necessity a priori?"

But I doubt that she would have appreciated my efforts. Plus, they may have asked me to leave the train if I started doing that.

But really, my most prominent reaction was, "Good. I'm glad that she's reading Kant." Especially the Grundlegung. As much as any other philosopher, Kant is responsible for the systems of laws and ethics that we still work under in the West. He articulated the concept of "All men are created equal," and the United Nations is founded largely on his essay "Perpetual Peace." And, for better or for worse, Kant is the one who laid out the parameters that have determined some of the fiercest conflicts of the past 200 years. Are all men free and equal beings? Are we all subject to the same moral codes, regardless of our race, class, gender, or culture? Is the postulation of the existence of God necessary in order to maintain a coherent ethical system? These are some of the ideas that have been and are being challenged on a regular basis, and so the more young people who have to get up a little earlier on a Tuesday to read about them, the better.

Also, his PhD dissertation translates into English as "On Fire." Which I just find to be absolutely hilarious.

I also own this:

And kind of want this:

From this link:

Powers: follows rules well, can leap as high as hundreds of times his own height

Weaknesses: sometimes seen as overly critical

Notes: This figure is, of course, only the phenomenal Kant toy. The deluxe version, Noumenal Self® Kant, is available only on special order and costs $339.95 (plus tax and S&H).

The reader may wonder, "Why is Kant blue with red tiger stripes?" Well, why twelve categories? I don't know. It was decided that a toy representing as important a philosopher as Kant ought to be unique in some way, that there ought to be some kind of toyly manifestation of his philosophical greatness. Blue with red tiger stripes was deemed sufficiently bad ass.

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Bart, The

So I'm reading up on APA style for proofreading, when I come across this peculiar sentence:

"Note a word used as a word, or a foreign term, with italics, for example, hutte means hut in German."

I pause.

That can't be right - what good does to do to tell someone that hutte means hut in German?


Hut as in small house. Not der Hut as in "hat."

What a horrible example.

And "note a word used as a word"? What does that mean?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

It's Getting Awfully Crowded in My Head

"Oh, no," I said, "Not this year."

"We're not going to go through this again, you drunk Irish bastard. No parades. No Dropkick Murphys. No angrily swinging empty bottles of Jameson about our heads.* No 30 packs of Genesee Cream Ale. No green, even, for Christ's sake.

"No unplugging of the toaster oven and then wildly twirling it by its cord until we smash it against a rock. No wrestling and breaking a cabinet door with our head. No karate kicking a hole in the wall. No mosh pits. And absolutely no starting conversations about Wittgenstein and ending them with fist fights!**

"No waking up in the morning in a pool of our own drool/vomit/blood. No waking up in strangers' closets. No wandering through the neighborhood in search of keys, lighter, cigarettes, wallet, hat, passport, left shoe, right sock and/or pants. No sudden flashes of horror or regret when remembering the previous night's uncomfortable talk with stranger about his sexual orientation/ awkward sexual encounter/ anti-Israeli rant/ pitcher of margaritas at 5 a.m. No trying to explain the hole in the roof to the Residency Director.

"Not this year! This year we're turning over a new leaf! We've actually done a pretty good job at observing Lent; we've only drank thrice since then! Let's keep it up! This St. Patrick's Day has got to be different!"***

"All excellent points, Joel." I replied, "But did you see what the Pope said yesterday?"****

"That Kraut bastard!" I exclaimed, "To Hell with Lent! To the pub!"


* We were angry because the bottle was empty.
** verb, "to Joel"
*** Leave it to the Irish to have a drinking holiday in the middle of fasting season.
**** Here's an update on the international response.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Dastardly Ficus and Other Comedic Tales of Woe and Misery, or, Should Joel Become a Cricket?

On Saturday, R.A. and I went to see The Dastardly Ficus and Other Comedic Tales of Woe and Misery. Written by Emily Schwartz, it's playing now through April 4 at the Chopin Theatre at 1543 W. Division St. in Chicago, right on the east end of Wicker Park. It's produced by "The Strange Tree Group," which bills itself on its website as, "A Wickedly Whimsical, Delightfully Devious Chicago Theatre Company." If this is their goal, then I guess that they succeeded with The Dastardly Ficus; it is both wicked and whimsical, delightful and devious.

First off, this was the first time that I had ever been to the Chopin Theatre. It looks a little out of place on Division St., with its columns and cream-colored facade on a strip shared by the dark and industrial-looking EvilOlivE bar and a towering apartment building that reminds me of the Soviet Union. Inside, the Chopin continues to be uncannily charming, with its walls painted golden and bright red, and its parlors and sitting rooms furnished with Restoration-era chairs and sofas. I would very much like to come back here, maybe during the light of day, and maybe have a cup of tea or a cocktail whilst I read the weekly journals and await for the evening post.

This, of course, is precisely the type of mindset that the audience is intended to have when entering for The Dastardly Ficus. The plot - or plots - revolves around the misadventures of two orphaned sisters, Geneva and Jennifer Derbyshire, the former played by Carol Enoch and the latter by Nancy Friedrich. The Derbyhires are a wonderful comic duo, inheriting a lot of Laurel and Hardy, a tiny bit of the sadism of Spiker and Sponge, and a lot of the surrealism of Neil Gaiman's Cain and Abel. There's a lot of violence and threat in their relationship - the cruelest of insults are hurled, relationships are sabotaged, and you're never quite sure why there are pistols and knives hidden all about their house - but there is also genuine sibling love and, perhaps frighteningly, mutual need.

The narratives of the play take place purposefully outside of space and time. We don't know how old the Derbyshires are, although we are constantly reminded (by both!) that Geneva is 13 months older than Jennifer. We don't know what year (or years) this is taking place; the antique radio that the sisters are constantly turning off and on plays everything from "If I Didn't Care" (1939) to "God's Away on Business" (2002). (More on this in a minute.) Even their accents shift from Victorian British to Connecticut Wasp to Southern Belle and back again.

To this end, then, the four vignettes that make up The Dastardly Ficus spin out like weird little dreams, ones that may occur right on top of each other, or that may take place years a part, or that may, in fact, have no temporal relationship to one another. Each scene exists within its own twisted "dream logic," that, when it works, which it does usually but not always, pulls you into the "game" with it. Jennifer brings home a severed head she found in a lake and announces that she plans to elope with it. The villains on the TV show come alive and threaten to take over the house. A tea party thrown for a not-long-expected-visitor turns deadly.

There were a few things that I thought could be improved. The screenplay's weird nature takes a while to get accustomed to, and for the first third or so of the play, the audience (myself included) were unsure how to respond to the actors (laughing at the wrong time, for example) and this struck me as distracting. I also thought that the lighting was a little distracting, often not sure what color the stage wanted to be. The acting was superb, although Ms. Friedrich has to restrain herself from stealing the scene (she gets all the best lines, the best being, when preparing for battle against an army of phantom raiders, "The ficus out ranks me?!?"), and Ms. Enoch tends to constrain herself to a too-narrow emotional spectrum (being the straight man in a comic duo is hard).

After the play, I asked R.A. what genre she would classify The Dastardly Ficus. She said, "Gorey-esque." Edward Gorey does permeate a lot of the play, especially in terms of his morbid sense of humor. This sense is reinforced throughout, from the playing of not one but three different Tom Waits songs to the constant reference to the presence of the Derbyshires' dead mother, who may not only watch over them but also commune with them and, possibly, interfere with their affairs. Of course, the music of Tom Waits also references two additional influences for The Dastardly Ficus: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (especially in terms of the twisting of logic in dialougue) and Georg Buchner's play Woyzeck. Gorey's writings are only one instance of an aesthetic and theatrical tradition that goes back at least two centuries, one that (I think) includes Gogol's "The Nose," many of the writings of Kafka, and Allan Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. If you're one of those who enjoy these dark and absurd stories, than I think you'll enjoy The Dastardly Ficus.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Cinq Pensees Pour le Samedi

This is the post that I intended to write yesterday, but I got distracted and somehow ended up writing instead a weird, rambling entry about Chicago landmarks coming alive at night and murdering innocent people. And I was sober at the time, too.

1) Two Friday the 13ths in a row?!? That's crazy. Must be just another sign of the impending apocalypse.

2) While I was in New York, I was playing with the thought in my mind of moving there, based primarily on the fact that about eighty percent of all of the jobs in the editing or publishing industry are there, with the rest being scattered about between Chicago, San Francisco, and (for some reason) Vietnam. I also know quite a lot of people in the area, including my sister and some second (and possibly third?) cousins. However, this plan kind of evaporated as soon as I realized that my friends with whom I stayed in Queens were paying considerably more per month than R.A. and I are, and are getting about half of the square-footage in return. And maybe I'm being region-centric, but it seemed to me that East Lakeview is far superior to North Bushwick. Or at least has a far higher brunch-restaurant-per-capita ratio. And in terms of commute time to downtown, too. So no relocating to New York for now, at least until I have a comfy six-figure job as the managing editor at a succesful academic journal ready for me.

3) Radiohead and Philosophy: Fitter, Happier, More Deductive has dropped! (Is that weird to say in regards to a book?) OK, well, it's shipped, and should be in bookstores by April 1.

Click screen to close
The newest addition to the PCP series. Don't laugh.

Not that I'm biased or anything, but I am excited about this book. One of the reasons for my excitement is that there is an entire section of the book - comprised of four different essays - entitled Radiohead, Heidegger, and Technology (Our Iron Lungs). I'm starting in a different section, however: Art and Belief (Show Me the World as I'd Love to See It). Right now I'm reading an essay about Julia Kristeva and the "abject" in art, i.e. the object within an aesthetic experience that is concealed from view and in spite of/because of that gives the entire experience its meaning. Yeah. Heavy stuff.

Anyways, I'll keep you updated as I read the book. Let you know if there are any chapters that you might want to skip, etc. (There are always stronger and weaker essays in these collections.) But you should check it out. Join the Facebook group. Buy the book.

4) Is it wrong that I'm starting to feel bad for GOP Chairman Michael Steele? First he gets in trouble for saying the truth about Rush Limbaugh - that he's first and foremost an entertainer - and now he's in hot water again for saying something sensible, that abortion is essentially an "individual choice." Of course, there's only so much sympathy that I have for ol' Token there. However, while I am convinced that the Republicans will make a come-back in two or four years, I also think that they need to purge their party of the crazies and everyone else who panders to the crazies. (Palin, Jindal, McCain '08, etc.) Until they do, this kind of debacle will happen to them over and over again; their "leaders" will be constantly underminded by the "base." This is why Charlie "The Tan" Crist doesn't want to leave Florida. This is why Arlen "Ghostman" Specter might have to run for re-election in 2010 as an independent. This is why Arnold "Why-Is-He-the-Governor-of-California-Again?" Schwarzenegger has been keeping a low-profile.* As soon as anyone goes on a national stage and says something that's not in line with the far-right wing, they get shouted down.

Which makes them wonder why they should say anything at all in the first place.

5) Big news! I got my first anonymous hate-comment on this blog! I must be moving up in the (imaginary) world!

* Also known as, Arnold "Why-Is-The-Terminator-The-Sensible-One-In-The-Republican-Party?" Schwarzenegger.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Chicago Has Better Pizza, Too

On Wednesday, I got back from a brief, incognito two-day visit to New York for Little Sister's 18th birthday. Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you.... I had a very good time, and might have more to talk about the trip at a later date. However, I realized again that, even though New York has some very beautiful architecture, it is definitely lacking in the "dark and menacing" tower category. For example:

The Chrysler Building:

Elegant and graceful? Yes. Black and terrifying? No.

Chicago, on the other hand, knows that, if you want to show the world who's the boss, you've got to build, dark towers that even Saruman would quake and tremble before.

Exhibit A: The Hancock Tower:

It's like the difference between John Lindsey and Richard J. Daley. (Yes, I'm still reading Nixonland.)

And what about the Empire State Building? Sure, it's big and beautiful, and perhaps the very definition of classic, (1613, from Fr. classique, from L. classicus "relating to the (highest) classes of the Roman people," hence, "superior," from classis (see class)). And, yes, it did murder King Kong. But look at:

If you ask me, the last thing that we need these days is a symbol of hope and inspiration. No, what we need is a phallic symbol that casts a shadow of fear across the land, that is huge and massive and, above all, imposing. ("the levying of taxes, a tax, duty," from O.Fr. imposition (1317), from L. impositionem (nom. impositio) "a laying on," from imponere "to place upon," from in- "into" + ponere "to put, place" (see position). As in "The governor of Illinois imposed a new tax in order to compensate for the incredible levels of graft and corruption of his predecessor.") Yes, in these days of doubt and uncertainty, what we need is the original Dark Tower, the Sears Tower:*FclW*kcXDeSxJbo7UA8ifXpu1AZvsoYie0x7XmeEIMs7gmw5upfd4SBpw-DmJd2mZ9HdatkhUTgwj8sCvo5PZJDF7/Chicago1.jpg

I mean, just look at it. The Sears Tower may not be as beautiful as The Empire State Building, but I bet that, if they transformed into robot form and had a battle over Niagara Falls, the Sears Tower would totally win.

In fact, at night, the Sears Tower, along with its sidekick, the AT&T Corporate Center, comes alive, and patrols the city streets fighting crime and menace. Also, they shake down store owners in Chinatown for bribe money, and sometimes they beat up the Aon Center or that new Trump Tower, just to keep them in their place.

Also, it shoots down terrorist air planes with lightning bolts from the horns on top of its head.



The owls on the Harold Washington Library also come alive at night. In addition to helping fight the on-going gang and other violence problems here, they also hunt down people with overdue library fines. They have been known to carry off the unsuspecting tourist from time to time as well.


Sometimes this thing comes alive and dismembers people, too:

'The Picasso' sculpture

Friday, March 6, 2009

I Still Suspect That Zack Snyder Is A Fascist

Well, Watchmen is out. On Tuesday, R.A. and I went to see Coraline (two-thumbs way up. Witches in Ashland, OR. Another addition, along with Twin Peaks and the X-Files, to our budding film-theory thesis, "Crazy Shit Happens in Oregon.") There was an advance screening of Watchmen that night, and the line of pimpled, pasty young men was already reaching the front door two hours before the movie started. This should be big.

However, I still can't shake this nagging feeling that I'm not going to like the film half as much as I like the trailer. Watchmen is currently getting mixed reviews, from a glowing, in-awe lovefest from Roger Ebert to a snarky, "those kids these days" nagfest from A.O. Scott of the NY Times.

Unfortunately, Blackwell Publishing ("Blaa-a-ck-Welll!" says my editor as he shakes his fist at the heavens) published Watchmen and Philosophy. I still might buy it. The story has a million interesting philosophical angles to it. One, though, that I find very intriguing is its take on America's collective trauma over the 60's. A trauma that, I think, persists to this day. (And is conveniently able to be referred to by the signifier "the 60's.")

For example, A.O. Scott gives the following exposition: "Mr. Moore and Mr. Gibbons confected a dour alternative chronology of cold-war America, defined by victory in Vietnam, an endless Nixon presidency, nuclear brinkmanship and pervasive social rot." Gary Thompson of the Philadelphia Daily News, in what I thought was a rather weirdly hateful review*, says, "The Watchmen are a collection of costumed crime fighters first co-opted by the government (they help Nixon win a third term) then outlawed as the right wing consolidates power." Andrew O'Hehir of - who, I'm beginning to realize, is coming from the left and loved the movie - says, "He [Dr. Manhattan] is being used by the United States government as a one-man missile defense system, while President Richard Nixon (who's beginning his fifth term in 1985) edges ever closer to launching a preemptive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union." Joe Morgenstern of the GOP-friendly Wall Street Journal thought that Watchmen was "inelegant" and "suffocating." He also didn't fail to mention that "That setting is amusing, up to a point. A Cyrano-nosed Richard Nixon is serving a fifth term in the White House."

Now, it's been a couple of months since I last read the book, but I don't recall Nixon being all that front or center in the plot. Yes, the main crisis of the story revolves around a nuclear showdown between the United States and the Soviet Union, and yes, Nixon's ugly mug is ever-present in the background. But I don't ever remember him speaking, and hardly ever being even mentioned by any of the actual characters. As a character, Richard M. Nixon is more or less inconsequential to Watchmen.

And yet, as a symbol, Nixon is all-important.

This has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that I'm reading Nixonland, by Richard Perlstein, right now.

But what amazes me is that all of these movie reviewers - in fact, all of the reviews that I have read so far - kind of casually mention the fact that Nixon is still president in Watchmen. I think that that thought terrifies them. If "The Sixties" is America's code-word for our collective sense of loss of innocence (Kennedy), violence against ourselves (rioting), and moral doubt (Vietnam), then "Nixon" is the sign of the repression of these experiences. He was the self-identified voice of the Silent Majority; literally, he spoke for us so that we would not be burdenend with speaking for ourselves. (dictatus) And, or so Perlstein seems to be arguing and I think I agree with him, America kind of needed this silence, this turning away from The Sixties (which also involved turning away from the flipside of their violence, the striving towards the Great Society). After all, repression, too, has a purpose - continued functioning within-the-world.

But the scary thought - the scary thought that drives Watchmen - is the thought of that repression never ending, of Nixon just being elected again and again and again and again and again and again. If this were the case, then nothing of any substance could ever be said about The Sixties.** And that, I think, is a lot of what Watchmen is about: The endless, traumatic repetition of historical and political events that we cannot grasp and yet that we ourselves are the producers of. And if we cannot find a way to process these events, then our only other option may end up being collective self-annihilation.

Post-Script: Of course, we Americans brilliantly followed up Richard Nixon with Ronald Reagan just six years later. Christopher Orr of The New Republic, the seventh reviewer I have read tonight and the first to not use the word "Nixon," says that the story of Watchmen "was an awful lot more subversive 20 years ago than it is today." Maybe he has a point. Maybe Alan Moore was saying that the America of 1985 might as well still have Nixon as its president given how well it was handling itself and its problems. On the other hand, I think that the fact that everyone else who has written about this film has felt compelled to mention Nixon's name points to the power his image still has over us. I think that "Nixon" - and, by extension, Watchmen - still has the power of fear over us because it reminds us that we have yet to cope with The Sixties, or to solve many of the issues that were at their core.

A spectre is haunting America - the spectre of Nixon.

Him and his sweaty, jowly face.***

* In addition to calling the movie "sour" and "soulless," he bravely puts his foot down: "This is the comic-book adaptation to see, if: you want to see one "superhero" sexually assault another, punching her brutally in the face not once but three times (I can think of better ways to use Carla Gugino)." Way to disapprove of rape while simultaneously objectivfying the woman getting raped. Dude.

**Don't get me wrong; a lot was said during the Nixon Administration about The Sixties. Whether or not any of it was or could have been meaningful is a different story.

*** Of course, this reading means that Barack Obama is the catharsis for all of this trauma, because he came of age after the Sixties and isn't burdened by any of that doubt or guilt. Hurray! Problem solved! (Dusting off hands in self-congratulatory manner.)

Monday, March 2, 2009

Monday Morning Schadenfreude

You know who I hate?

Allen Iverson.

Somewhere out in the depths of the Internet, there's a video of me on my 21st birthday, going off on a drunken tirade about how absolutely horrible of a basketball player he is. I mention this to prove that if the Detroit Pistons had asked me what I thought about Iverson when they were considering trading Chauncey Billups for him, I would not have hesitated to give my opinion. I'm not just kind of fair-weather hater, is what I'm saying.

Iverson was traded from the Denver Nuggets to the Detroit Pistons on November 3 for Chauncey Billups. (Essentially, since Antonio McDyess later re-signed with the Pistons.) That was on the second day of the season. Last year, Detroit went 59-23. So far this season, they're 29-29. "But Joel," you say, "there are so many variables at work! Their starters are all starting to age! They have to compete with the Cavs, Celtics, and Magic! They have a new, young coach! You can't blame the Pistons' decline solely on Iverson!" Fine. But now, let's look at Iverson's old team, Denver.

The Nuggets finished last season 50-32, a .610 win percentage, and lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Lakers. So far this season, they are 39-21, .650. At this point, they're #1 in their division, meaning that they should be able to avoid either the Lakers and the Spurs in the first round, and should be favored to make at least the semi-finals.

But here's the kicker. Since February 8, the Pistons had been in a free-fall, losing 8 games in a row and falling into seventh place in the East. It had been starting to look like they might not even make the playoffs. They had lost the first three games of a five-game road trip, including a 21-point drubbing at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Then Iverson started suffering from mysterious back ailments, and was flown back to Detroit, his starting position in the line-up returned to Rip Hamilton. And then the Pistons won. At Orlando. And then they won again. At Boston.

And after the Celtics lost, Paul Pierce said: ''You can tell they're playing the system they played before Iverson got there. When Iverson is out there they're still trying to figure out how to use each other, how to all be successful. But that group that's out there is definitely comfortable because they've played together for years.''

Rip Hamilton said: ''We played our type of basketball. That's the thing for me with Tayshaun, Rasheed (Wallace) and (Antonio) McDyess, I always know they're going to be at all times.''

Doc Rivers said: ''This is the old Pistons we're playing now. The ball is hopping. They're playing together.''

Gee, nothing personal A.I., but when you're not there, the Pistons "play the system they played," "played our type of basketball," and were "playing together." It's almost as if playing "together" as a "team" helps Detroit "win basketball games."

I am still at sea as to why Detroit would trade Billups, who has won infinitely more NBA Championships than Iverson and is the epitome of a team-leading point guard who plays the system. The conventional wisdom is that, because Iverson's contract is due to expire next season, the Pistons are preparing to rebuild completely, and possibly get into the running for signing one (or more) of the big names that will be free-agents in 2010. Fine. But I still contend that they're better with Iverson on the bench. In a suit. At home. Weeping.

But we'll find out. Denver plays at Detroit tomorrow. My money says that, as long as Iverson doesn't play, the Pistons will win.

Because I hate him.

Go Blazers.