The Horror Of Stuff: On Speaking Unspeakables

by Jochen Szangolies

Figure 1: Objects in a scene as detected by an AI system. Image credit: wikimedia commons, MTheiler, CC BY-SA 4.0

The world we inhabit is a world of objects. Wherever we look, we find that it comes to us already disarticulated into cleanly differentiable chunks, individuated by certain properties: the mug on the desk is made of ceramic, the desk of wood; it is white, the desk black; and so on. By some means, these properties serve to circumscribe the object they belong to, wrapping it up into a neatly tied-up parcel of reality. No additional work needs to be done cutting up the world at its joints into individual objects.

Moreover, this fact typically doesn’t strike us as puzzling: objects seem entirely non-mysterious things. I could describe this coffee mug to you, and, if I include sufficient detail, you could fashion an identical one. The same procedure could be repeated for every object in my office, indeed, for the entire office itself.

Certainly: there may be edge cases. Where I see one cloud, you might see two. When the mug is glued to the desk, they don’t seem to become one object; but certain sorts of fastening, such as assembling various electronic components into a computer, seem to beget novel objects over and above mere collections of parts. Still: there are various ways out of these troubles. The computer can be described as various sorts of parts and their arrangement; the cloud by its shape.

Objects seem eminently describable sorts of things. There seems to be no residual mystery beyond an exhaustive specification of their properties. But not everything is so amenable to description, as speakable as objects seem to be. Read more »

Thomas Bernhard and the City of Dreams

by Leanne Ogasawara

Arriving in Vienna, we immediately set out for District 14, in the western suburbs of the city. Exhausted after the long journey from Los Angeles, all we wanted to do was get something to eat and crash out in our room. Unfortunately, Viennese architect Otto Wagner’s legendary church was only opened to the public for four hours a week –on Sundays from noon to 4pm. And today was Sunday, so it was now or never!

Completed in 1907, the Kirche am Steinhof is considered to be one of the the most beautiful Art Nouveau churches in the world. Located on top of a wooded hill (Ah, the Vienna Woods!), the church is part of a sprawling psychiatric hospital—once one of the largest in Europe. It is also the place where a dear friend of mine had gone on her first date with the man she fell madly in love with decades ago.

It was an odd spot for a first date. But my friend assured me: It had been perfect–and they were still going strong!

Still, I had never been on the grounds of a psychiatric hospital before. The guard stationed at the front gate inquired if we wanted to see the church: Kirche? We nodded, and he pointed up the hill. There were maybe a dozen old buildings, each set within its own grove of trees, dotting the extensive grounds. The church loomed large above the wooded landscape. Its golden dome–recently renovated– was gleaming in the brilliant sunlight. I could easily understand why the locals called it: limoniberg (the lemon hill).

The hospital grounds were a cheerful place. It was only later that I learned its terrible history. Read more »

Errol Morris on Wittgenstein, or someone like him in certain respects

by Dave Maier

A few months ago, on the New York Times Opinionator blog, filmmaker Errol Morris posted a remarkable five-part series of articles, which dealt with a wide range of fascinating topics, all in search of an understanding of a traumatic incident in his past. This is a time-honored literary exercise, and Morris is a knowledgeable and skilled writer. Yet not everyone was pleased with his efforts, and some harsh words were exchanged in the ether before all became quiet once again.

Not one to let sleeping dogs lie, but also in the hope that tempers have cooled enough for us to take a sober look at the matter, I would like today, for what it is worth (and if you find it worthless, your money will be cheerfully refunded) to throw in my own two cents.

Perhaps you remember the story. As he tells it, in 1972 Morris was a graduate student at Princeton studying with Thomas Kuhn. During a heated discussion, Kuhn, a chain-smoker, threw an ashtray at Morris, missing his target but searing an unforgettable image into the young man's soul: “I see the arc, the trajectory. As if the ashtray were its own separate solar system. With orbiting planets (butts), asteroids and interstellar gas (ash).” Below this description, Morris provides for the reader a specially reenacted photograph (photo credit: Errol Morris).

Morris_ashtray7-blog427 What concerns me in this fantastic apologia cum vendetta is not the terrible wrong that was done to Morris (which included not simply the threat of bodily harm, but also ejection from the graduate program), but the rather more boring issue of the philosophical corners Morris necessarily – and unnecessarily – cuts in telling his story.

Just be glad this isn't a five-part series.

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