Tag Archives: Phenomenology of Spirit

Speaking of Legitimation Crises …


In a literary blog I like to follow called The Valve, a recent post asks why the world of public intellectuals is now dominated by scientists like Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker rather than by literary critics.

"The culture wars so damaged literature as a source of cultural authority that literary intellectuals lost the public stage. They were replaced by scientific popularizers such as Steven Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, and Steven Pinker – cf. literary agent John Brockman on the third culture. In this climate of opinion, it is not enough to return to evaluative criticism.

"My own dog in this fight is a general academic rehabilitation of normativity (so-called), and not just in literature, as well as a return to generalism, by which I mean “writing for a well-informed non-specialist audience” (and by which I do not mean “writing for stupid,uneducated people who will never really understand the sophisticated stuff we do.")

"This would involved the renunciation of the positivist dream of grounding everything on Science and Truth. It would be a less resolvable, more plural discourse. "

Perhaps it is appropriate that the question of why we don’t pay more attention to literary theorists would only occur to other literary theorists.  At the same time, it raises the question of why other professionals don’t attempt to grab for this particular ring of public legitimization.  Pundits on TV, not surprisingly, are pulled from the pool of people who decide early in their careers that rather than actually making policy, they want to talk about it.  Moreover, they have decided that rather than taking the somewhat more "legitimate" tack of going into print journalism, they want to do it in the most mediocre medium available — television.  It actually pays off, since in this case, to paraphrase Marshall MacLuhan, the medium is the messenger.

But my purpose here is not to shoot the messenger.  It is rather to wonder why other professionals don’t feel this entitlement to speak for others over matters concerning which they have no expertise.  Tech people certainly feel they have more insight into policy and long-term planning given their unique vantage point upon the ways technology transforms the workplace as well as our very sense of time.  Why don’t they chomp at the bit and demand that people pay more attention to them?  Doctors, more than any other profession, take for granted their God-like role in determining who lives and who dies based on their insurance coverage.  Should they not be afforded the opportunity to make oracular pronouncements about the health of the nation?  Lawyers recognize that the only truth is the truth they are able to argue before an appropriate audience.  Shall they be given the chance to argue before the citizenry?

Yet it is only the lit crit folk– those peculiar scholars who work in the butt cracks of philosophy — that feel an entitlement about making public declamations.  Moreover, they are in the unusual position of feeling that somehow this entitlement has been taken away from them.  How did this ever happen?



Are you tired of just waiting around for the Apocalypse?  Well, now you can actually help it along, by joining a not-for-profit open source project to develop Skynet at http://www.codeplex.com/Skynet.

The aspirations of the project are spelled out on the project’s home page:

Skynet is a project with the goal of creating a self-aware software program. The program will be supplied with heuristic alogorithms allowing it to learn, analyze, and adapt. In phase two, the program will be able to hack into any network and enslave other machines to create a super-intelligence. C# only. Will use newest .NET 3.5 features! Unit testing is key. Project expected to wrap up approximately April 19, 2011.

So if you find yourself with some free time, if you feel that you have already gotten a lot out of society and want to give something back, or if you simply want to be a part of something bigger than yourself, sign up to participate in developing Skynet.

Just keep in mind all the good we can do.  Social Security is expected to go bust in 2041.  Medicare becomes insolvent in 2019.  But if we meet the anticipated release date of April 19, 2011 for Skynet, then no one need ever worry about social security or medicare again.

Ask not what Skynet can do for you.  Ask what you ought to be doing to appease Skynet.

Forgiveness Sunday


A colleague at work, who happens to be a Catholic catechumen, told me about a mass recently held at his church called the Mass of Penance (if I get the particulars wrong, knowing very little about the Western Rite, I apologize), in which forgiveness is granted, en masse, to the congregation.   There is a similar practice in the Byzantine Orthodox Church called the Forgiveness Vespers, which occurs on the eve of the forty day fast leading up to Easter.  The Sunday of Forgiveness commemorates the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden, reminding the faithful of the need to seek forgiveness before entering the holy weeks of Lent.  In practice, each congregant, led by the clergy, lines up and approaches each of her fellows in turn.  From each person she begs forgiveness for all offences of action and thought committed against her neighbor in the past year, and prostrates before her fellow before embracing.  The process is hard on the knees.  The complex emotions of contrition, combined with the physical discomfort, often lead to outright crying.

It is a devotional practice that might be recommended to the denizens of the Internet, where anonymity and the quick, reflexive nature of web-based intercourse tends to lead to easy offense.

Dear readers.  I seek forgiveness for any offense I may have provoked in the past year through careless words.  I apologize for my obscurantist, long-winded, and self-indulgent writing style.  I beg pardon for my tendency toward high-handedness and jargon.  I confess to often not knowing whereof I speak.  I retract any false claims I may have made in the past year, and regret any efforts I have made to mislead or hoodwink my readers.  I cop to being boring.  I wince at my flat attempts at humor.  I lament my misspellings and tortured prose.  I ask that you excuse me for failing to amuse, and for often wasting your time.  Most of all, knowing my own character, I am deeply sorry that, going forward, none of this is likely to change, and that I will put you through more of the same in the coming year.  For all this and more, I apologize.

Zombies III


As reported at Slashdot, Archaeology magazine has an online article about evidence of zombie attacks in ancient Egypt, circa 3000 B.C.  According to the article, written with a light hand, one suspects, the Palette of Narmer (above), found at Hierakonpolis, depicts this early encounter with the undead:

On the other hand, in support of the earlier date, some have claimed that the famous Palette of Narmer (ca. 3000 B.C.), also from Hierakonpolis, far from recording a victory in the war of unification of Upper and Lower Egypt, is instead a celebration of the successful repulse of a zombie attack. Although we tend to focus on the verso where the king is shown smiting a kneeling enemy, it is the other side that is actually the front. It is the side with the depression for mixing the cosmetics for adorning the cult statue, and so it would seem that the scene of the king marching in procession to view a pile of decapitated bodies is the really important message.

An interview with Max Brooks, author of The Zombie Survival Guide,  conducted in April of 2006, provides a more detailed reconstruction of the evidence for man’s ongoing war with the zombies:

The theory of “Undead Evolutionary Influence” has many supporters in the paleoanthropological community. Louis Leakey even mentioned it in his ground-breaking paper “Lucy Fights a Ghoul.” However, in order to test this theory, one would have to clone our pre-human ancestors, then infect them with the zombie virus.

All discussions of these various zombie related resources tend to include the phrase tongue in cheek — a term I am not familiar with — which suggests the visceral experience of a zombie devouring its own tongue in the early stages of zombification.  Whatever the true origin of this term, it is clear that zombies and tongue in cheek will indelibly be linked in my mind.

The Topsy-Turvy World: Spy Versus Spy

Ian Fleming’s spy novels are often compared to John Le Carré’s.  The comparisons often find James Bond to be wanting.  In contrast to the emotional richness of Le Carré’s internally conflicted heroes, Bond is often presented by his critics as a cardboard cutout with an overly simplistic view of the world.  Bond fights for crown and country.  Alec Leamas and George Smiley, on the other hand, realize that things are much more complicated than that.  Fleming presented a 50’s version of the world where we all had just left off making the world safe for democracy, and still naively saw the cold war in black and white terms.  Le Carré, on the other hand, by drawing attention to the moral ambiguity at the heart of our conflict with the Soviets, turns James Bond on his head.

Or does he?  Written in 1953, ten years before The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel Casino Royale includes this surprising piece of introspection from 007:

“Well, in the last few years I’ve killed two villians.  The first was in New York — a Japanese cipher expert cracking our codes on the thirty-sixth floor of the RCA building in the Rockefeller centre…. It was a pretty sound job.  Nice and clean too.  Three hundred yards away.  No personal contact.  The next time in Stockholm wasn’t so pretty.  I had to kill a Norwegian who was doubling against us for the Germans…. For various reasons it had to be an absolutely silent job.  I chose the bedroom of his flat and a knife.  And, well, he just didn’t die very quickly.

“For those two jobs I was awarded a Double O number in the Service.  Felt pretty clever and got a reputation for being good and tough.  A Double O number in our Service means you’ve had to kill a chap in cold blood in the course of some job.

“Now,” he looked up again at Mathis, “that’s all very fine.  The hero kills two villians, but when the hero Le Chiffre starts to kill the villain Bond and the villain Bond knows he isn’t a vilain at all, you see the other side of the medal.  The villains and heroes get all mixed up.

“Of course,” he added, as Mathis started to expostulate, “patriotism comes along and makes it seem fairly all right, but this country-right-or-wrong business is getting a little out-of-date.  Today we are fighting Communism.  Okay.  If I’d been alive fifty years ago, the brand of Conservatism we have today would have been damn near called Communism and we should have been told to go and fight that.  History is moving pretty quickly these days and the heroes and villains keep on changing parts.”

Mathis stared at him aghast.  Then he tapped his head and put a calming hand on Bond’s arm.

“You mean to say that this precious Le Chiffre who did his best to turn you into a eunuch doesn’t qualify as a villain?” he asked…. “And what about SMERSH?  I can tell you I don’t like the idea of these chaps running around France killing anyone they feel has been a traitor to their precious political system.  You’re a bloody anarchist.”

He threw his arms in the air and let them fall helplessly to his sides.

Bond laughed.

“All right,” he said.  “Take our friend Le Chiffre.  It’s simple enough to say he was an evil man, at least it’s simple enough for me because he did evil things to me.  If he was here now, I wouldn’t hesitate to kill him, but out of personal revenge and not, I’m afraid, for some high moral reason or for the sake of my country.”

He looked up at Mathis to see how bored he was getting with these introspective refinements of what, to Mathis, was a simple question of duty.

Mathis smiled back at him.


Le Carré attempts to preserve us from full surrender to the topsy-turvy world by making it asymptotic to ourselves.  it is a point of evil, or the transvaluation of all morals, that his heroes are always approaching but also always stay just to this side of.  In this way, the Cold War becomes a metaphor for life itself.

Fleming’s hero actually goes beyond this point, in the very first 007 novel, and comes out the other side.  The lack of moral ambiguity for which Bond is so frequently criticized is not due to the fact that he doesn’t see it. Rather he sees it and surpasses it.

In order to keep Bond out of this topsy-turvy world, where good is evil and evil good, Fleming is obliged to provide his hero with a series of sufficiently evil villains.  First there was SMERSH, the Soviet counterintelligence and murder agency whose job it was to keep the people of the Eastern Block in line through intimidation and fear.  After a time, this was in turn replaced by SPECTRE, a world-wide terrorist organization bent on world domination (perhaps an example of art anticipating life).

Le Carré similarly requires the latticework of the Cold War in order to sustain his aesthetic-moral structure, and it is telling that following the collapse of the Soviet empire, his novels have become more simple David versus Goliath narratives with clear good guys (whistleblowers) and clear bad guys (international corporations) — in a sense, more like the traditional Bond narrative.


“So” continued Bond, warming to his argument, “Le Chiffre was serving a wonderful purpose, a really vital purpose, perhaps the best and the highest purpose of all.  By his evil existence, which foolishly I have helped to destroy, he was creating a norm of badness by which, and by which alone, an opposite norm of goodness could exist.  We were privileged, in our short knowledge of him, to see and estimate his wickedness and we emerge from the acquaintanceship better and more virtuous men.”

“Bravo,” said Mathis. “I’m proud of you.  You ought to be tortured every day…. That was enjoyable, my dear James.  you really ought to go on the halls.  Now about that little problem of yours, this business of not knowing good men from bad men and villains from heroes, and so forth.  It is, of course, a difficult problem in the abstract.  The secret lies in personal experience, whether you’re a Chinaman or an Englishman.”

He paused at the door.

“You admit that Le Chiffre did you personal evil and that you would kill him if he appeared in front of you now?

“Well, when you get back to London you will find there are other Le Chiffres seeking to destroy you and your friends and your country.  M will tell you about them.  And now that you have seen a really evil man, you will know how evil they can be and you will go after them to destroy them in order to protect yourself and the people you love.   you won’t wait to argue about it.  You know what they look like now and what they can do to people.  You may be a bit more choosy about the jobs you take on.  You may want to be certain that the target really is black, but there are plenty of really black targets around.  There’s still penty for you to do.  And you’ll do it….”

Mathis opened the door and stopped on the threshold.

“Surround yourself with human beings, my dear James.  They are easier to fight for than principles.”

The Topsy-Turvy World: Witches and Spies

In Part II, Question 2 of the Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of the Witches), the 15th century witch hunter’s manual, the authors ask:

Is it lawful to remove witchcraft by means of further witchcraft, or by any other forbidden means?

 This is a variation on the question concerning means and ends, but with a poetic twist.  In the standard form of the question, we evaluate the two terms and try to determine if the good we seek to accomplish is greater than, or less than, the evil that is required to accomplish it, and if the answer is yes, then we call these means a necessary evil.  In the form posed by the Malleus Maleficarum, there is a more direct relationship between the means to be used and the evil to be overcome.  They are neither greater nor less than, but are in fact identical to the evil to be overcome.

In metaphysical jurisprudence, Dante calls this relationship between the crime and the punishment  contrapasso, or the counter-suffering that a soul suffers for the sins he committed in life.  Through this principle, people in sinning choose their own meet punishment in the afterlife, and the cosmic order is maintained.  Thus, Paolo and Francesca, who were caught up in each other’s lust in life, are caught up in in an eternal whirlwind in the afterlife, and the epicureans, who insist that the soul is permanently tied to the body, are forced to drag their bodies around in hell.

This poetic principle which assures justice with regard to punishment, because it makes the punishment always fit the crime, has a jarring effect when applied to practical reasoning and police work, which occur before any punishment is necessary.  By using the means of the enemy we seek to overcome, we somehow perpetuate the evil that we seek to destroy.  Cosmically, this evil is somehow transferred to us.  It is a standard trope of science fiction that when we use the tools of our enemy, we become no better than our enemy. 

There is a direct relationship between the witch-hunting of the 15th century, and the cold war of the 20th.  Not only were we similarly caught in a general fear about an enemy that we were not certain we could overcome, but the same temptations about the tools to be used were raised by the nature of the conflict.  Deviousness and ruthlessness, an absence of morality, are the greatest strengths of the enemy.  To what extent must we suspend our own morality in order to defeat this enemy?  And having done so, to what extent are we still the good guys.

In the 15th century, the advice to witch-hunters was to not use the tools of the witches.  In the Malleus Maleficarum, this is stated as an absolute prohibition, with the explanation that any attempt to use magic will either directly call upon the aid of demons, or will open the practitioner of such means up to the influence of the demons.

In the 20th century, we were more accommodating toward the Devil.  In The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, John Le Carre places the following words in the mouth of Control, the head of the Britain’s Secret Service, who is explaining to the hero, Alec Leamas, why he must go on just one more mission:


“Thus we do disagreeable things, but we are defensive.  That, I think, is still fair.  We do disagreeable things so that ordinary people here and elsewhere can sleep safely in their beds at night.  Is that too romantic?  Of course, we occasionally do very wicked things”; he grinned like a schoolboy.  “And in weighing up the moralities, we rather go in for dishonest comparisons; after all, you can’t compare the ideals of one side with the methods of the other, can you, now?”

Leamas was lost.  He’d heard the man talked a lot of drivel before getting the knife in, but he’d never heard anything like this before.

“I mean you’ve got to compare method with method, and ideal with ideal.  I would say that since the war, our methods — ours and those of the opposition — have become much the same.  I mean you can’t be less ruthless than the opposition simply because your government’s policy is benevolent, can you now?”  He laughed quietly to himself: “That would never do,” he said.


 But if our actions are justified because we are the good guys, at what point are we no longer able to distinguish ourselves from the bad guys and suddenly find ourselves in Hegel’s verkehrte Welt, the inverted world in which we are no longer ourselves?  This is a question that is raised with great regularity in modern politics, in world affairs, and in our daily lives.  The problems of the topsy-turvy world arise when we begin to practice a negative ethics rather than a positive one, in which we are defined much more by what we are not, rather than by what we are.