Dispatches: Ones and Zeroes

For a while now, sculpture and painting’s preeminence among the plastic arts has seemed a little anachronistic.  Painters such as Richter or Freud who stick to using paint to do two-dimensional figurations, or sculptors like Serra who stick to ‘raw’ materials like steel over the found objects that decorate so much installation art, feel classic or even old-fashioned.  After Pop art, art and photography that mix media became much more common: Gilbert and George, Lee Bontecou, landscape art, Bruce Nauman.  More recently, the materials of plastic art keep getting more worldly.  Witness the Young British Artists:  Rachel Whiteread (plaster casts of negative space), Chris Offili (dung), Marc Quinn (blood), the Chapmans (figurines), Tracy Emin (household materials and furniture).

While the world has been intruding into art’s materials, and art has been escaping the gallery (as with street art), I’ve been thinking about another development lately, one which leaves plasticity behind altogether: the use of computers, not just to create art, but as the subject of art as well.  For two or three years this field has been gathering momentum, and it feels like a generational shift.  There’s now a group of people approaching thirty who have grown up in an entirely novel social condition, that of having used computers all their lives, and for whom navigating the programmed landscapes of operating systems and icons is as natural as Wordsworth rambling the Lake District.  This is neither a good nor bad development, it’s history.  Anyway, I don’t believe in being too technologically determinist about kinds of art, but looking at the work of this group is incredibly exciting because the kinds of inquiries they make denaturalize and probe their environment, which in their case happens to be the space of computing.  They add computing to the world, and add the world to computing.

Let’s start with the celebrated Cory Arcangel.  Cory’s work usually uses obsolete game systems, computers, file formats, and other computing detritus as the basis for experiments and invasions.  His most famous work is “Super Mario Clouds,” in which he hacked a Super Mario Brothers cartridge to display only the blue sky and floating clouds, a work shown at the Whitney Biennial.  Other stuff includes a shooting game hacked to make Andy Warhol the target, with Flavor Flav and Col. Sanders the decoys;  matching Kurt Cobain’s suicide letter with ads from Google AdSense; rearranging the DVD chapter markers on ‘Simon and Garfunkel Live at Central Park’ to notate all the moments where they look like they hate each other; and so on.  Are you thinking this stuff is juvenile?  You’d be wrong, but in a way, you’d be right: Cory conserves the open-source ethos of young hackers, to the point of supplying instructions for how to replicate his most famous works. 

Cory’s instructions to “Super Mario Clouds” are a very strange and very fascinating kind of aesthetic document.  (They’re also funny.)  As it turns out, his manic methods are refreshingly low-tech, born of a taste for the ground floor of computing.  He writes a new set of instructions that uses the game’s existing graphics, compiles it (translates it into 1’s and 0’s, or assembly language), and burns it onto to the same chip that the original Nintendo uses (he has a chip burner used by Nissan hotrodders who use it to hack their engines).  Then things get even more basic: he takes the game cartridge, desolders and removes the program chip, and solders in his newly burned chip, cutting a hole in the plastic casing to fit it.  The result is a slightly haunting image of a glowing blue sky and those iconic Super Mario Clouds, floating right out of the collective imaginary.

You might wonder why Arcangel doesn’t just make the image on Photoshop; it would be a heckuva lot easier.   Here are his own learned and excitable words:

“A typical NES Cartridge has two chips. One is a graphics chip, and the other is a program chip. Basically the program chip tells the graphics chip where to put the graphics, and thus if you do this in a interesting manner, you have a video game. When making a “Super Mario Clouds” cartridge, I only modify the program chip, and I leave the graphic chip from the original game intact. Therefore since I do not touch the graphics from the original cartridge, the clouds you see are the actual factory soldered clouds that come on the Mario cartridge. There is no generation loss, and no “copying” because I did not even have to make a copy. Wasss up.”

See, these are the real “factory soldered” clouds, chief.  Surely one of the more bizarre yet convincing determinations of authenticity I’ve seen in a while, Cory expresses perfectly the thrill of using the actual relevant materials to create an artwork.  Simply Photoshopping the image would be fake, clearly, yet it’s hard to explain exactly why, a mark of art that applies itself to present conundrums.  Maybe the physical Nintendo cartridge matters because it’s the real physical object that inflected our world, and it’s important to use it, understand it, and work with it.

The first Palm Pilot was exciting to lots of computer geeks because its tiny memory meant ingenious little games were invented and shared, as they were in the initial stages of personal computing.  (I remember writing simple BASIC programs for my Atari 400 and saving them on cassette tapes, which I excitedly played to hear the “sound” of my code, not that I was ever a dork or anything.)  Arcangel returns to the obsolete technologies of his childhood, not as nostalgic fixations (he claims never to have liked playing Mario), but as an aesthetic embrace of the real.  Surrounded by these things, he developed an entirely artistic fixation with changing them, interfering with them, transforming them.  His work, over time, keeps getting simpler, showing how little it takes to get into the cracks of things that appear seamless, like hardware and operating systems.  He takes on challenges for the sake of curiousity: he recently calculated where the exact Manhattan center of Starbucks gravity is, and explained how.  What’s implicit is how just paying the right kind of attention keeps the world interesting, fully alive and of the moment.

The official art world has already begun to sanction this type of work, as the Whitney Biennial makes pretty clear, as well as a recent show at the slightly old-school Pace Wildenstein gallery, curated by Patricia Hughes and featuring Arcangel, Brody Condon, the collective Paper Rad, and others.  Another feature they seem to share is an eclecticism with respect to materials and genres: many of them make music as well as art, and all seem to be feeding off of the whole range of waste-products of consumer obsolescence, rotting eighties junk that begs to be categorized and indexed.  Underneath a lot of this work is a desire for mastery, for lost comprehension, that’s so hard to satisfy in the present condition of unprecedented epistemological overload and confusion.  Cory again:

“We [BEIGE, Cory’s art/music collective] started using fixed architecture machines, computers which are no longer being developed, at this time because it is impossible to keep up with commercial software and hardware. Imagine trying to play Bach on the piano if they switched keys around every few years … and charged you for it! Plus the limited capabilities of these computers allows us to understand every aspect of the machine.”

Hence the attraction to precisely the limitations of older systems.  To take another recent example, have a look at this short animation from Michael Bell-Smith, entitled “Keep On Moving (Don’t Stop).”  The use of the squarish graphical template of early role-playing games has a similarly aesthetic, as opposed to nostalgic, motivation to that of Arcangel’s work.  It’s got the immersion in music too: yellow is color of sunrays.  The cheery quest followed by the recursive, fractal surprise at the end – trapped! – suggests the computer game as a new locale of the culture industry, appropriating all attempts to escape.  Adorno would have liked to have predicted it, but here the feeling isn’t as dour, it’s more pragmatic: we’re stuck with this world, so let’s transform it.  This topos isn’t chosen because of fondness, this is part of the air, part of the world and how we represent ourselves now.  And because computer avatarship is inescapable, it’s all the more important to subject computing to an aesthetic investigation.  I’ve seen works by the macro-photographer Andreas Gursky and the miniaturist painter Shazia Sikander that use computer animation, but this current group goes further.  They make art, not just using computers as a engineering tool, but out of and delving into computing as a cultural form.

See some more Dispatches.

Old Bev: So Dark the Con of Men?

Professor Robert Langdon, hero of Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code,  is a well-known symbologist, American, and bachelor.  In the space of a few days in Paris and London, Langdon is accused of murder, seeks the Holy Grail, and gets the first date he’s had in years.  He’s a classic bumbling hero, roused from a hotel slumber to meet Bezu Fache, the captain of the Central Directorate Judicial Police who is hell-bent on arresting him; Sophie Neveu, a cryptologist who believes Langdon can help solve the mystery of her grandfather’s murder; and Sir Leigh Teabing, the world’s preeminent Holy Grail scholar.  Dan Brown doesn’t give us too much personal information about our hero, preferring instead to let chatty Langdon provide most of the historical exposition, but we do know that he has had but one love in his life, a woman named Vittoria who drifted away a year before The DaVinci Code picks up.  Langdon, like most every other character in the book, is looking for a lady.

Davincicode_us_3The DaVinci Code is a competent thriller, but it takes more than that to sell over 40 million copies and nearly $200 million worth of movie tickets.  Dan Brown’s genre elements – murder, escape, conspiracy, romance – exist first in the primary plot starring Langdon and company, and finally in a more famous plot starring Jesus Christ and his disciples.  Murder, escape, and conspiracy are all familiar Biblical elements, but romance?  There’s where the 40 million copies come into play.  Robert Langdon’s newest manuscript asserts that the Holy Grail is the sarcophagus of Mary Magdalene and documents that trace her bloodline into the present day.  Why Mary?  She allegedly married and bore the child of Jesus Christ.  This is more than Biblical gossip though, because Dan Brown’s Catholic Church has suppressed Mary’s claim to the church (ie, the sacred feminine) and seeks to destroy the Grail and murder Christ’s living descendents.  The DaVinci Code is ostensibly a book about restoration of (or failing that, reverence for) female power – so how come there’s only one female character in the book?

If Dan Brown doesn’t tell us much about Robert Langdon, he tells us even less about Sophie Neveu.  At least Langdon’s ramblings and manuscripts are evidence of his own passion and intellectual life; Sophie’s interest in cryptology is attributed directly to the design of the grandfather who raised her. If Sophie had a love at one point, he doesn’t get a name – we know just that she is lonely.  She’s useful to the search for the Grail only because of her hazy childhood memories.  Sophie is a human code, and she needs Langdon to help her read herself.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with a lonely repressed lady cryptologist, but Brown isolates her in a world where female power has been lost, and encourages only the men to reclaim it.

When Langdon informs his lecture hall of the “mind boggling” “concept of sex as a pathway to God” held by the early church, he fields a question from the crowd:

“Professor Langdon?” A male student in back raised his hand, sounding hopeful.  “Are you saying that instead of going to chapel, we should have more sex?”  Langdon chuckled, not about to take the bait.  From what he’d heard about Harvard parties, these kids were having more than enough sex.  “Gentlemen,” he said, knowing he was on tender ground, “might I offer a suggestion for all of you.  Without being so bold as to condone pre-marital sex, and without being so naïve as to think you’re all chaste angels, I will give you this bit of advice about your sex lives.”  All the men in the audience leaned forward, listening intently.  “The next time  you find  yourself with a woman, look in your heart and see if you cannot approach sex as a mystical, spiritual act.  Challenge yourself to find that spark of divinity that man can only achieve through union with the sacred feminine.”  (310)

What’s interesting here is that Langdon responds only to the “gentlemen” in his class.  He perceives the question – a misunderstanding of his lecture – to be fundamentally male, and assumes either that women already have an appropriate attitude toward sex or that perhaps they don’t need that appropriate attitude if the man has it.  There’s no space in his treatment of the sex act for female sexuality except as a conduit for a male experienced “spark of divinity.”  Sophie Neveu is positioned similarly in the narrative – there’s no space for her experience of the murder or Grail quest outside of what it means for her late grandfather and her male companions.  She is the portal through which the academics finally make tangible their theory.  Her agency is only as great as the extent to which Langdon and Teabing exploit her.  Dan Brown offers few clues, in a 454 page bestseller about the suppression and celebration of the ‘sacred feminine,’ as to how a woman might negotiate her own intrinsic divinity.

Sophie, though she serves as an object of desire for the bulk of The DaVinci Code, only behaves sexually after she learns herself to be the direct descendant of Mary Magdalene and Jesus Christ.  It’s as if Brown can’t ask his heroine to reevaluate her sex life in the same manner that he asks men, through Langdon, to; instead he fashions Sophie as a blank slate.  She doesn’t endure a reawakening at the conclusion of the novel, but an awakening:

The stars were just appearing, but to the west, a single point of light glowed brighter than any other.  Langdon smiled when he saw it.  It was Venus.  The ancient Goddess shining down with her steady and patient light…Langdon looked over at Sophie.  Her eyes were closed, her lips relaxed in a contented smile…Reluctantly, he squeezed her hand…Langdon felt an unexpected sadness to realize he would be returning to Paris without her.  “I’m sorry, I’m not very good at—”  Sophie reached out and placed her soft hand on the side of his face.  Then, leaning forward, she kissed him tenderly on the cheek.  [Langdon asks Sophie to meet him in Florence the following month, and she agrees as long as they avoid museums etc.]  “In Florence?  For a week?  There’s nothing else to do.”  Sophie leaned forward and kissed him again, now on the lips.  Their bodies came together, softly at first, and then completely.  When she pulled away, her eyes were full of promise.  “Right,” Langdon managed.  “It’s a date.”  (448-449)

This is an unremarkable conclusion to an unremarkable romance plot, except for the fact that Brown offers no representations of female desire not explicitly allied with a Goddess.  If her enlightened sex with Langdon will in fact help her explore her spirituality, why does this probihit Brown from acknowledging her prior sexual impulses?  Jane Schaberg and Melanie Johnson-DeBaufre point out in their article “There’s Something About Mary Magdalene” that female sexuality in The DaVinci Code exclusively “helps men achieve their full spiritual potential,” but they also posit that Brown’s Christianity is one that “appeals to those looking for a spirituality not based in creed or authority, but on knowledge, personal reflection and an embodied life in the world.”  (Ms. Magazine, Spring 2006)  In The DaVinci Code, however, no woman who is not literally the descendant of a goddess negotiates such a spirituality.  Individual women – like Vittoria, who made choices illegible to Langdon – are absent.  Brown keeps women abstract by referring to them only in groups: Langdon’s female students “smiled knowingly, nodding” (but don’t speak to each other as the men do), no female participant in a traditional sex ritual is identified (as Sophie’s grandfather is), an unnamed Parisian academic reminds Langdon of all the simpering women back home, a nun is emblematic of a body of believers, and Sophie’s grandmother represents the entire bloodline of Mary Magdalene.  For the individual woman in The DaVinci Code, there is no “embodied life in the world” if it does not involve a male body – or if she is a part of the literal bloodline of Jesus and Mary.

One scene in The DaVinci Code stands out from the rest.  It’s not included in the screen adaptation by Akiva Goldsman.  In it, Langdon and Sophie take a cab ride through the Bois de Boulogne:

Langdon was having trouble concentrating as a scattering of the park’s nocturnal residents were already emerging from the shadows and flaunting their wares in the glare of the headlights.  Ahead, two topless teenage girls shot smoldering gazes into the taxi.  Beyond them, a well-oiled black man in a G-string turned and flexed his buttocks.  Beside him, a gorgeous blond woman lifted her miniskirt to reveal that she was not, in fact, a woman…Langdon nodded, unable to imagine a less congruous a backdrop for the legend he was about to tell.  (157)

Sophie doesn’t have trouble paying attention; her eyes are “riveted” on Langdon. It’s also worth noting that the women appear in groups here as well.  But the scene’s explicit depiction of a secular shadowy sexual marketplace is unique within the novel. Here a more complex web of connections between individual and temporal sexualities, lifestyles, and belief systems is glimpsed. Langdon himself seems to congratulate his author on the decision.  Unfortunately, the cab-driver’s radio begins to crackle with news of the fugitives, and Langdon and Sophie have to hightail it out of the Bois de Boulogne, and it’s on to a Swiss Bank to search for the distillation of the sacred feminine.

Lunar Refractions: Longing for Perfect Porn Aristocrats and Other Delights

Leonard Cohen’s music first came to me in my early teens. I fell deeply in love, and thought, this will pass, this is an adolescent thing, a phase, an infatuation; time or luck will have me grow out of this.

01_natural_born_killers_front His words came to me—as many great things come to me, in pathetic or even hideous masks, to test whether or not I am easily fooled by the disguises woven to hide their wondrous nature—in Oliver Stone’s 1994 movie Natural Born Killers. It is a rather dismissible movie, though the soundtrack is amazing (thank you, Trent Reznor et al.), and it did its job of delivering the unexpected, unforeseeable goods.

But by then I already, albeit unwittingly, knew these tw02_livesong_2o introductory songs, “The Future” and “Waiting for the Miracle,” from one of my friend Vanessa’s mixed tapes. I just didn’t know who was behind the suave voice. A few years and several album acquisitions later, an acquaintance in Rome asked me what I was listening to at the moment, and it was Cohen’s 1973 album Live Songs. The response so impressed me that I bring it to you verbatim: “Leonard Cohen? Nobody listens to him anymore. We were all listening to him in the late seventies, when we were young and radical and left.” Yeah, I left. I’m fine being told that my tastes are quite yesterday, and I knew this guy probably didn’t get it because he was, well, who he was. He was also definitely one of the numerous Europeans who helped make Cohen more popular over there than in North America by not understanding his lyrics.

Well, to echo the rampant name-calling that follows him everywhere, the Ladies’ Man, the Grocer of Despair, grandson of the Prince of Grammarians, has just published a new old book, titled Book of Longing, and was on the radio three weeks ago chatting with Terry Gross. She did a fairly good job, considering that the usual sort of questions, many of which she tried, really didn’t fit here, and Cohen seems to be no comforter.

03_006112558xLie to me, Leonard

Firstly, he lied his way through the entire hour. Okay, perhaps they weren’t all lies, and the ones that were lies were committed with some definite * intentions (*I’m at a loss for the appropriate adjective: honest? Low? Lofty? Sick? Sweet? Romantic? All of the above?). The truth is that he can’t help how charming he is, and frankly it’s a miracle he’s done what he has to melt deeply frozen hearts. He had tea on April 21 with his Zen master in celebration of the latter’s ninety-ninth birthday, but immediately backtracks to point out that it wasn’t tea—it was liquor. In his poem “Titles” he reads that “I hated everyone / but I acted generously / and no one found me out.” He valiantly assures the listener that this is true, and equally valiantly contradicts it in song and in print. Plus, I can’t help but suspect that many people have found him out. Is it possible to feign this man’s passion? Probably, but I just don’t want to think so.

Alright, that’s not so many lies. But a lot of interesting things came up. When discussing04a_150pxcandleburning the idea of composing a poem versus composing a song, Gross asks him about the early sixties song “Famous Blue Raincoat” and which of those two it originally was, to which he replies, “It’s all the same to me.” [Aside: forgive me for sticking to the script here and bringing up the blockbuster songs, when I’d rather fawn over the lesser-known songs like “Teachers,” “Passing Through,” “Who by Fire,” “If It be Your Will,” “Here It Is,” etc.]

A lot of what one might call romantic creation is touted here. Ignoring the famous traits of “despair, romantic longing, and cynicism” alongside the idea that “at the same time, there’s a spiritual quality to many of his songs” mentioned as an introductory nothingness on the radio show, when asked where “Famous Blue Raincoat” came from, he replies, “I don’t know, I don’t remember how it arose—I don’t remember how any of them get written.” When asked why he left the Zen center after five or six years of work there, he replies, “I don’t know… I’m never sure why I do anything, to tell you the truth.” About the creation of “Everybody Knows,” “I don’t really remember…. You see, if I really remembered the conditions which produce good songs, I’d try to establish them,” going on to mention the use of napkins, notebooks, etc.

Then there’s the sheer hard labor of it:

You get it but you get it after sweating…. I can’t discard anything unless I finish it, so I have to finish the verses that I discard. So it takes a long time; I have to finish it to know whether it deserves to survive in the song, so in that sense all the songs take a long time. And although the good lines come unbidden, they’re anticipated, and the anticipation involves a patient application to the enterprise.

Of the early-nineties song “Always,” Gross points out that he’s taken a song by Irving Berlin and added a few lines, making it “suddenly very dark and sour.” His quick reply: “Well, you can depend on me for that…”. His is “a kind of drunken version of it.” He’d like to do a song in the vein of those great American songbook lyricists he doesn’t feel equal to:

05_p55347pvbct_1 I have a very limited kind of expression, but I’ve done the best that I can with it, and I’ve worked it as diligently as I can, but I don’t really—except for songs like “Hallelujah,” or “If It be Your Will,” I think those are two of my best songs—I don’t live up to… those great songwriters….

There’s a lot of things I’d like to do, but when you’re actually in the trenches, and, you know, you’re in front of the page or… the guitar or the keyboard under your hands, you know you have to deal with where the05a_225pxlarge_bonfire_1 energy is, what arises, what presents itself with a certain kind of urgency. So, in those final moments, you really don’t choose, you just go where the smoke is, and the flames and the glow or the fire, you just go there.

The Ponies Run the Girls are Young

06_dancerfullgallop2 But enough about composition. My favorite bits are where Cohen plays the role of the [not exactly dirty] old man. Page 56 of his new book carries a poem for a certain Sandy, and what girl doesn’t occasionally want to be the Sandy sung to here? “I know you had to lie to me / I know you had to cheat / To pose all hot and high behind / The veils of sheer deceit / Our perfect porn aristocrat / So elegant and cheap / I’m old but I’m still into that / A06a_victoria_color1b thousand kisses deep.” Age is very present here, and while he’s sung of so many other mortal weaknesses over the past forty-plus years, it seems he had to wait for this particular one to sink into the bones before it began to permeate his work. In four short lines on page 171 you learn the sorrows of the elderly. Go to page 14 to read my favorite tidbit written to a young nun, speaking of staggered births, time disposing of two people whose generations separate them, and whose turn it is to die for love, whose to resurrect. This one is too beautiful to steal from page to pixel.

Betrayal also comes up. In the end the letter writer who sings about that famous blue raincoat has his woman stolen by the letter recipient. In speaking about such games, his age now seems to save him:

07_4512437720056oberitalien332kopie Fortunately I’ve been expelled from that particular dangerous garden, you know, by my age… so I’m not participating in these maneuvers with the frequency that I once did. But I think that when one is in that world, even if the situation does not result in any catastrophic splits as it does in “Famous Blue Raincoat,” one is always, you know, edging, one is always protecting one’s lover, one is always on the edge of a jealous disposition.

Later he specifies that one does not become exempt from that garden, but is just not as welcome. So what are the trade-offs for no longer being welcome? If nothing else, there’s a special voice, which in Cohen’s case is undeniably alluring. He apparently acquired it through, “well, about 500 tons of whiskey and a million cigarettes—fifty, sixty years of smoking…”. I didn’t know tar could be turned to gold.

The Fall

Then comes the most terrifying subject of all, beauty—physical beauty, superficial beauty. We are either enslaved by it, embody it, or attach ourselves to someone who does. He is still oppressed by the figures of beauty, just as he was thirty-two years ago. And here he’s at his most graceful:08_150559628_2670890923_1

I still stagger and fall…. Of course it just happens to me all the time, you just have to get very careful about it, because it’s inappropriate for an elderly chap to register authentically his feelings, you know, because they really could be interpreted, so you really have to get quite covert as you get older… or you have to find some avuncular way of responding, but still, you just, really are just, you’re wounded, you stagger, and you fall.

One feels deeply in love, and thinks this will pass, this is a phase, an infatuation; time or luck will have me grow out of this.

A Monday Musing by Morgan Meis about Cohen is here, and previous Lunar Refractions can be seen here.

Negotiations 8: On Watching the Iranian Soccer Team Crumble Before Their Mexican Counterparts on German Soil

What is the legacy of two thousand years of Christianity? What are the specific qualities that the Christian tradition has instilled and cultivated in the minds of men? They appear to be twofold, and dangerously allied: on the one hand, a more refined sense of truth than any other human civilization has known, an almost uncontrollable drive for absolute spiritual and intellectual certainties. We are speaking of a theology that through St. Thomas Aquinas assimilated into its grand system the genius of Aristotle and whose Inquisitors in the Church bequeathed to modern science its arsenal of weapons for the interrogation of truth. The will to truth in the Christian tradition is overwhelming. On the other hand, we have also inherited the ever-present suspicion that life on this earth is not in itself a supreme value, but is in need of a higher, a transcendental redemption and justification. We feel that there is something wrong with us, or that the world itself needs salvation. Alas, this unholy alliance is bound finally to corrode the very beliefs on which it rests. For the Christian mind, exercised and guided in its search for knowledge by one of the most sophisticated and comprehensive theologies the world has ever seen, has, at the same time, been fashioned and directed by the indelible Christian distrust of the ways of the world. Such a mind will eventually, in a frenzy of intellectual honesty, unmask as humbug what it began by regarding as its highest values. The boundless faith in truth, a joint legacy of Christ and Greek, will in the end dislodge every possible belief in the truth of any faith. For the Christian, belief in God becomes—unbelievable. Ergo Nietzsche:

Nietzschebig_1_1Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in broad daylight, ran to the marketplace and cried incessantly: “I seek God! I seek God!” As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? Emigrated? Thus they yelled and laughed.

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God? I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers… God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

His listeners fell silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. “I have come too early,” he said then; “my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men… This deed is still more distant from men than the most distant stars—and yet they have done it themselves.”

God, as Nietzsche puts it, is dead; and you and I, with the relentless little knives of our own intellect—psychology, history, and science—we have killed him. God is dead. Note well the paradox contained in those words. Nietzsche never says that there was no God, but that the Eternal has been vanquished by time, the Immortal has suffered death at the hands of mortals. God is dead. It is a cry mingled of despair and triumph, reducing, by comparison, the whose story of atheism and agnosticism before and after to the level of respectable mediocrity and making it sound like a collection of announcements by bankers who regret that they are unable to invest in an unsafe proposition.

Nietzsche brings to its perverse conclusion a line of religious thought and experience linked to the names of St. Paul, St. Augustine, Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Dostoevsky, minds for whom God was not simply the creator of an order of nature within which man has his clearly defined place, but to whom He came in order to challenge their natural being, making demands which appeared absurd in the light of natural reason.

Nietzsche is the madman, breaking with his sinister news into the marketplace complacency of the pharisees of unbelief. We moderns have done away with God, and yet the report of our deed has not reached us. We know not what we have done, but He who could forgive us is no more. No wonder Nietzsche considers the death of God the greatest event in modern history and the cause of extreme danger. “The story I have to tell is the history of the next two centuries,” he writes. “Where we live, soon nobody will be able to exist.” Men will become enemies, and each his own enemy. From now on, with their sense of faith raging within, frustrated and impotent, men will hate, however many comforts they lavish upon themselves; and they will hate themselves with a new hatred, unconsciously at work in the depths of their souls. True, there will be ever-better reformers of society, ever-better socialists and artists, ever-better hospitals, an ever-increasing intolerance of pain and poverty and suffering and death, and an ever more fanatical craving for the greatest happiness of the greatest numbers. Yet the deepest impulse informing their striving will not be love, and it will not be compassion. Its true source will be the panic-stricken determination not to have to ask the questions that arise in the shadow of God’s death: “What now is the meaning of life? Is there nothing more to our existence than mere passage?” For these are the questions that remind us most painfully that we have done away with the only answers we had.

The time, Nietzsche predicts, is fast approaching when secular crusaders, tools of man’s collective suicide, will devastate the world with their rival claims to compensate for the lost kingdom of Heaven by setting up on earth the ideological economies of democracy and justice, economies which, by the very force of the spiritual derangement involved, will lead to the values of cruelty, exploitation, and slavery. “There will be wars such as have never been waged on Earth. I foresee something terrible, chaos everywhere. Nothing left which is of any value, nothing which commands, ‘Though shalt!’” Ecce homo; behold the man, homo modernus, homo nihilismus. Nihilism—the state of human beings and societies faced with a total eclipse of all values—thrives in the shadow of God’s death. We have vanquished God, but we have yet to vanquish the nihilism that has risen up within us to take God’s place. There is a profound nihilism at work in this world. How are we to deal with this, the legacy of our greatest deed? There is no going back; there can be no going back. We are perched atop a juggernaut; the reins of that sad cart have been passed to us by the four Horseman of modernity—Nietzsche, Freud, Marx and Darwin. Do we heave back on them now? I think not—we must drive them ever faster, until the juggernaut topples and we nimbles, we free spirits, have the opportunity to leap forward and beyond our time. Play more soccer.

What Does Ehud Olmert Want?

Amos Elon reviews The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967–1977 by Gershom Gorenberg, in the New York Review of Books:

Olmert_ehud20060622After weeks of bargaining with smaller parties, each with its own special interests, Ehud Olmert, the leader of the new Kadima party, has finally formed a new Israeli government. The election campaign was overshadowed by the specter of the comatose Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in the third month of a massive hemorrhagic stroke but still formally in office. Hawks and doves pledged their undying loyalty to his “legacy,” whatever it was. Sharon was a reckless, controversial man, exceedingly contradictory— as perhaps many interesting men are; only the dull have simple characters. He was not a man of peace, as President Bush once called him, but out of tune with his time. In an age of decolonization, half a century after the French–Algerian war, he was mainly responsible for the huge “settlement project” in the occupied territories, now often described as the great historical mistake of 1967. The occupied territories continue to fester in Israeli life like a monstrous disease. Their days seem numbered. “I hate the corpses of empires,” Rebecca West wrote. “They stink so badly that I cannot believe that even in life they were healthy.”[1]

It was a mean little empire, even before the inhabitants became restive. Other colonialists co-opted local elites, intermarried, built universities, great waterworks, and other public amenities for the colonized; Israel did little of the sort. Nearly all real improvements in the territories since 1967 were financed by the Saudis and the Gulf States.

More here.

Tales from the crypt: James Wolcott on the New Yorker

From the New Criterion:

New_yorker_1penn2Other weeklies, such as The Nation and The New Republic, have digitized their archives, but those virtual libraries are maintained online, requiring subscription fees or single payments to access articles. (I’ve used both services to excavate art and movie reviews by Manny Farber, one of my critical idols, that otherwise would have remained orphaned within bound volumes.) The New Yorker was doing The Nation and The New Republic one better by bypassing the entire online rigamarole and giving readers the complete works in a handsome, handy, illustrated multi-disk set.

It was fitting for The New Yorker to lavish such love on itself, given its status as a cult object and coffee-table signifier of taste and breeding. The New Yorker is the only magazine in America, probably in the world, to inspire reverence and druidical devotion.

More here.

The Mythical Port of Muziris Found

In the BBC:

Archaeologists working on India’s south-west coast believe they may have solved the mystery of the location of a major port which was key to trade between India and the Roman Empire – Muziris, in the modern-day state of Kerala.

For many years, people have been in search of the almost mythical port, known as Vanchi to locals.

Much-recorded in Roman times, Muziris was a major centre for trade between Rome and southern India – but appeared to have simply disappeared.

Now, however, an investigation by two archaeologists – KP Shajan and V Selvakumar – has placed the ancient port as having existed where the small town of Pattanam now stands, on India’s south-west Malabar coast.

(Hat tip: Chandan Narayan)

Giving Robots the Sense of Touch

In Scientific American:

One of the biggest challenges in robotics engineering is mimicking the human sense of touch. The ability to respond to texture and pressure is essential for delicate tasks, such as surgery. To that end, researchers have developed a new type of sensor that has a tactile sensitivity comparable to that of human fingertips–making it 50 times more sensitive than previously existing technology.

The device, a so-called electroluminescent thin film, glows in response to applied pressure. The result is a finely detailed image of the texture of any object that touches the film. Designers Vivek Maheshwari and Ravi Saraf of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln demonstrated this effect by pressing a penny against the device (see image). Because the sensor produces data in the form of an optical image, the data can be quickly and easily collected by simply photographing the image. This represents a major step forward in the ease and efficiency of collecting information from tactile sensors. Quick data collection is critical to performing real-time tasks, for example grasping a tool with a robotic arm. If the tool starts to slip, the image produced by the electroluminescent film immediately shows the tool’s motion, and the robot’s grip can then be adjusted to prevent it from falling.

Naming the Beautiful Game

Apparently, it was “soccer” before it was “football”, in Der Spiegel. (Via Political Theory Daily Review).

Many football fanatics merely assume that the word “soccer” is just another marsupial American tradition — like 190-1 votes in the United Nations and men in suits driving Humvees through busy downtowns — inevitable in a country surrounded on two sides by oceans.

A certain self-righteousness also comes with the isolated territory. “Well,” the American in the pub said to the Liverpool fan, “my kind of football’s a little more rough-and-tumble, if you know what I mean. It’s not, you know, as polite as all this.” He waved at the TV above the bar. “But I can appreciate soccer. There’s something sort of pretty about it.”

But as much as the world likes to mock Americans for their ignorance of the beautiful game, football just isn’t the correct term for it in English. Soccer is right.

The world comes from 19th-century British slang for “Association Rules” football, a kicking and dribbling game that was distinct from “Rugby rules” football back when both versions were played by British schoolboys. The lads who preferred the rougher game popular in schools like Rugby and Eton seceded from Britain’s fledgling Football Association in 1871 to write their own rules, and soon players were calling the two sorts of football “rugger” and “soccer.”

The NYT Edges Towards a “Review of the Review Review”

I’d add one more layer to the survey/review, but it should stop here

Early this year, the Book Review’s editor, Sam Tanenhaus, sent out a short letter to a couple of hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages, asking them to please identify “the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years.” [See the winners. Read A. O. Scott’s essay. See a list of the judges. Follow a discussion with Jane Smiley, Michael Cunningham, Morris Dickstein and Stephen Metcalf.] Here is a selective list of blogs, with text taken verbatim from posts commenting on the project…

Lawyers, Guns and Money

May 11, 6:58 AM. By Robert Farley.

There are only three works since 2000, including two of what I thought were fairly weak Roth efforts (Human Stain and especially Plot Against America), which suggests to me that distance and hindsight are important to a project like this. I imagine that a couple of hundred prominent writers and critics asked in 2015 would return a much different set of works from the first part of this decade.

(The joke “review of the review review is Morgan’s, as Abbas notes in the comments.)

Remembering Golding’s Last Day

In the Guardian, DM Thomas remembers William Golding.

I walked into a fish-and-chip shop in Truro, about 15 years ago, and joined a queue. At the head of it was an elderly man with wild white hair and beard, wearing a grubby raincoat. I recognised William Golding. I mused about the odds against walking into a chippie and seeing a Nobel Laureate having fish and chips wrapped. He shuffled past me without recognition and I didn’t say hello. It seemed an embarrassment to do so, almost as if I’d caught him buying a top-shelf magazine.

We had something in common beside fish-and-chips, wild white hair, grubby raincoats and writing novels. I had returned to my native Cornwall in 1987, a few years later than he had done. We don’t think of Golding as Cornish, but his mother was Cornish, and he was born near Newquay. His parents had married in Truro Cathedral. I lived with my wife Denise and our son in Truro, Golding a few miles away, in the village of Perranarworthal. He’d moved back from Wiltshire, I’d heard, partly to escape from the hordes of fans and trashcan-raiders, partly because he was proud of his Cornish roots.

High minded: Walter Benjamin’s writings on drugs

From The Boston Globe:Benjamin

AT FIRST GLANCE, Walter Benjamin, the bespectacled, bushy mustached, deeply serious, and influential German literary critic, may not strike you as a likely drug user. Indeed, he considered drugs a “poison,” and a rather disreputable one at that. As Marcus Boon writes in his introduction to “On Hashish,” a slim English translation of Benjamin’s writings on drugs, just published by Harvard University Press, “Drug use was hardly seen as something worthy of celebration in Benjamin’s intellectual milieu” in the Berlin of the 1920s and early `30s.

And yet, surprisingly, few writers have approached the experience of intoxication with Benjamin’s earnestness, profound wonderment, and sense of purpose. Neither a recreational user nor an addict, he had a studious, deliberate, almost scholarly approach. In 1927, persuaded by some doctor friends to take part in their research, Benjamin began to dabble in a range of drugs-opium, hashish, mescaline-and recorded his experiences in a series of fragments and “protocols”: observations in Benjamin’s hand alternating with the musings of his medical pals.

In the writings collected in “On Hashish,” some composed during a drug session, others afterwards in recollection (Benjamin only published two drug-related texts in his lifetime), the often forbidding theorist appears in a playful, relaxed mode.

More here.

Kitty Cam Reveals Killers in Our Midst

Cat_2 From The National Geographic:

In a dark alley the stealthy killer stalks her next unsuspecting victim. This isn’t the plot of a pulp comic, but an everyday occurrence in the life of a pampered urban house cat.

Get a cat’s-eye view of one pet’s nightly prowl, and find out why the activities of our feline friends are raising the hackles of some wildlife conservationists.

Video here.  (This one is for Guddi).

Aula 2006 ─ Movement: Joichi Ito

NOTE: All posts at 3QD related to the Aula 2006 ─ Movement event, including this one, will be collected on this page. Bookmark it to stay on top of the Aula meeting at all times for the next week.

450pxjoichi_itoThe last keynote speaker at the Aula 2006 ─ Movement meeting in Helsinki next week is Joi Ito, who hardly needs me to introduce him. Most of you have probably at least heard his name, it is so ubiquitous on the web. Among other things, he was one of the early bloggers and Joi’s blog remains one of the most-visited in the world. As a matter of fact, Joi gave me some good advice by email about blogging in the early days of 3QD, and I am looking forward to finally meeting him face to face.

This is from Joi’s bio on Wikipedia:

Joi Ito, is a Japanese-born, American-educated, activist, entrepreneur, and venture capitalist.

Ito has received much recognition for his role as an entrepreneur focused on Internet and technology companies and has founded, among other companies, PSINet Japan, Digital Garage and Infoseek Japan. He maintains a blog, a wiki, an IRC channel and contributes to the Tokyo Metroblogging. Early on, Joi was involved in running a nightclub in Japan, bringing industrial music from Chicago (Wax Trax) and later the rave scene, including importing Anarchic Adjustment to Japan. He was an active player on the first Multi User Dungeons (MUD) at Essex University and once worked with Sega, on the Dreamcast‘s online features.

He also appears as a character in a webcomic, The Adventures of Epicenter, which was once linked to in his blog.

185pxwow_box_artI am sure that others besides me must also wonder how Joi can possibly have time for everything that he does, but to his unbelievably busy schedule he has managed to add the time-drain of playing World of Warcraft! In a short article he recently published in Wired (and which I had also posted at 3QD a few days ago) he confesses that:

I started playing a year ago and have become custodian of We Know, a guild of about 250 people worldwide: medics, CEOs, bartenders, mothers, soldiers, students. We assemble in-game to mount epic six-hour raids that require some members to wake at 4 am and others to stay up all night. Outside the game, we stay in touch using online forums, a wiki, blogs, and a mailing list – plus a group voice chat, which I’ve connected to my home stereo so I can hear the guild’s banter while I’m cooking dinner. I have never been this addicted to anything before. My other hobbies are gone. My daily blogging regimen has taken a hit. And my social life revolves more and more around friends in the game.

But don’t let this fool you into thinking that Joi is any less productive than ever before. Check out some of his current activities (also listed at his Wikipedia page):

…Ito is [currently] General Manager of International Operations for Technorati, Chairman of Six Apart Japan, and also currently a member of the board of Creative Commons, Socialtext, The Metabrainz Foundation and Technorati Japan. He is the Chairman of the board of Creative Commons International. He is the founder and CEO of the venture capital firm Neoteny Co., Ltd. In October of 2004, he was named to the board of ICANN for a three-year term starting December 2004. In April of 2005, he was named to the board of the Open Source Initiative. In August of 2005, he joined the board of the Mozilla Foundation. In 2006 he was appointed to the board [1] of WITNESS.

And as if this weren’t enough:

He is attempting, again, to educate himself and is studying at the Hitotsubashi University Graduate School of International Corporate Strategy [2] as a Doctorate of Business Administration candidate…

There is far more one could say about Joi, but I’ll end by saying that he is endlessly surprising. For example, I recently found out that he is Timothy Leary’s godson! Check out Joi’s touching remembrance of Leary on the 10th anniversary of his death:

Tim321tm Timothy Leary passed away 10 years ago today. I was with him the evening before he died and I still remember his humor even in his final hour.

I met Timothy Leary in Tokyo in the summer of 1990. Tim was excited about virtual reality and had told his friend David Kubiak in Kyoto to help him track down “young Japanese kids who know about virtual reality”. I wasn’t a VR expert, but I was into computer graphics, games and the rave/club scene. I had also just opened a nightclub in Tokyo. David, who lived in Kyoto, directed Tim to me and several others in Tokyo and we hooked up with him at a bar.

I hijacked the situation. After dinner I grabbed Tim and took him on a whirlwind tour of the Tokyo club scene.

Read the rest of that post here. If you want more info on Joi, Google him and, trust me, you’ll get plenty to keep you going for quite a while. See you on Wednesday, Joi!

In the Twinkle of a Fly

Rudolf A. Raff reviews Coming to Life: How Genes Drive Development by Nobel-laureate Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, in American Scientist:

Fullimage_200653113635_866Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard is one of the pioneers in the groundbreaking discoveries that revealed how genes regulate the development of animal embryos. For this effort she shared the 1995 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with Eric F. Wieschaus and Edward B. Lewis. In Coming to Life, she provides an engaging and clear summary of what developmental biologists now understand about how embryos work.

The existence of such an apparently simple guide shows how much we have come to take for granted the explanation of development by gene regulation. However, it should be understood that what Nüsslein-Volhard describes actually represents the outcome of one of the premier intellectual triumphs of human thought—one that has been achieved within only the past two and a half decades.

Consider the profound difficulty embryonic development presents to an observer. A complex organism, such as a chick, frog, insect or human, arises in an orderly and magical way from an apparently structureless egg.

More here.

Christopher Columbus, Failure

Christine Gibson at American Heritage:

20060520columbusNo matter how widely he had been hailed as a hero 14 years before, by 1506, when he died (500 years ago today), Christopher Columbus was all washed up.

Crowds from across Spain lined the streets of Seville in 1493 to welcome him home from his first voyage to the Americas, but he already hadn’t found what he was looking for, a seaway to India’s spice-trade ports. He never would, though the search consumed the rest of his life. A little genocide here, some slavery there, several mutinies, and multiple executions of crew members later, and Columbus fell out of favor with the Spanish crown and the public. When he died he was surrounded by family and by the trappings of his substantial income. But he went to his grave with the gouging sense of injustice he couldn’t forgive and of failure he couldn’t explain.

His reputation began to sour during his second expedition.

More here.

Good Scout

From The New York Times:

‘Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee,’ by Charles J. ShieldsLee

Here is a book about a woman who knew when to get off the train. A tomboy from Monroeville, Ala., editor of her college humor magazine, The Rammer Jammer, and law school dropout, she took it on the lam to New York, got a job, made friends and managed to write a novel that hit the best-seller lists and stayed there, won a Pulitzer, got made into a major movie and became a staple of high school English along with “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Great Gatsby.” Total sales are somewhere around 30 million, and it continues to sell hundreds of thousands of copies a year.

She worked for years on a second novel, and then, in the mid-1980’s, on a book of nonfiction about a serial murder in Alabama, neither of which worked out to her satisfaction and so she squashed them. She made her peace with being a one-book author. Unlike her friend Truman Capote, she didn’t enjoy the limelight. So she backed away from celebrity, declined to be interviewed or be honorifically degreed and simply lived her life, sometimes in Manhattan, riding city buses, visiting museums and bookstores in her running suit and sneakers, seeing old friends, and most of the time in Monroeville, in a ranch house with her older sister Alice, a house full of books. Built-in bookshelves, floor to ceiling.

More here.

Among the Brainiacs: Intellectuals descend on Soccer

Bryan Curtis in Slate:

060607_middle_soccerillotn2For decades, it was baseball that felt brainy and top-heavy—thanks to the efforts of men like George F. Will, who was forever wondering how Tony LaRussa reminded him of Tocqueville. From John Cheever to Stephen Jay Gould, baseball’s beat poets looted the game for metaphors for and clues to the national character. Those same deep thoughts are now regularly located in soccer, which seems primed to yield both grand sociopolitical theories and inchoate childhood longings.

What brought soccer to the smart set? Well, one could simply argue that soccer’s time had come. Many of the writers in question (Eggers, Foer) were in their formative years when soccer became a mandatory youth sport in America, as well as a part of the American sporting scene (a moment generally pegged at Pelé’s signing by the New York Cosmos in 1975.) “What you’re seeing now is the result of the gold rush of soccer in the 1970s, when Pelé came to America and made it cool for kids,” says David Hirshey, soccer aficionado and executive editor of HarperCollins. “Those kids have grown up to be McSweeney’s and Granta writers.”

More here.

Religion from the Outside

Freeman J. Dyson reviews Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Daniel C. Dennett, in the New York Review of Books:

Dennett_daniel20060622Dennett is a philosopher. In this book he is confronting the philosophical questions arising from religion in the modern world. Why does religion exist? Why does it have such a powerful grip on people in many different cultures? Are the practical effects of religion preponderantly good or preponderantly evil? Is religion useful as a basis for public morality? What can we do to counter the spread of religious movements that we consider dangerous? Can the tools and methods of science help us to understand religion as a natural phenomenon? Dennett remarks at the beginning that he will proceed

not by answering the big questions that motivate the whole enterprise but by asking them, as carefully as I can, and pointing out what we already know about how to answer them, and showing why we need to answer them.

I am a philosopher, not a biologist or an anthropologist or a sociologist or historian or theologian. We philosophers are better at asking questions than at answering them….

Dennett practices what he preaches. He does not answer the questions, but takes four hundred pages to ask them. The book proceeds at a leisurely pace, with an easy conversational style and many digressions.

More here. There is more about Dennett’s book at 3QD here, including a link to my own review.