Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Moral Ecology of Markets

The social philosopher Michael Walzer has argued that justice itself cannot be based on a simple one-size-fits-all understanding of what just behavior entails. In his book Spheres of Justice, he argues that different kinds of 'goods' (i.e., things people value) have different social meanings and that the proper rule for just distribution of those goods depends on their meanings. Thus, for example, simple economic commodities are distributed by the rule of the market: Each will receive as income what others are willing to offer to get the things he originally owned. But other social goods must be distributed by other rules. Honors should go to those who deserve them, not those who can pay the most for them. Even though the criteria for deserving a Nobel prize in physics are quite different from those for a gold medal in the hundred-meter dash at the Olympics, it would be unjust to buy (or sell) either honor. Essential goods and services, whether that is the help of the police when one has been robbed or sufficient food to feed one's family when one is unemployed, should be distributed in accord with needs. Offices (jobs that have a political import of some kind) are distributed in accord with the criteria that define them. Similarly, citizenship, education, love, and political power are all distributed by different principles.

Walzer's point is that different kinds of goods ought to be distributed under different rules because their diverse meanings should be respected. Thus one of Walzer's fundamental critiques is directed at libertarians and a number of other market proponents who see no problem in extending the logic of the market - one person makes an offer and the other decides whether or not to accept it - into other areas of life where this market mentality undermines widely accepted views of justice. From this perspective, whether or not economic self-interest in the sphere of money and commodities is morally attractive, it is morally quite offensive as it pushes into other spheres of life.

The Moral Ecology of Markets, Daniel K. Finn

Monday, August 27, 2007

The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy

Old ideas give way slowly; for they are more than abstract logical forms and categories. They are habits, predispositions, deeply ingrained attitudes of aversion and preference. Moreover, the conviction persists - though history shows it to be a hallucination - that all the questions that the human mind has asked are questions that can be answered in terms of the alternatives that the questions themselves present. But in fact intellectual progress usually occurs through sheer abandonment of questions together with both of the alternatives they assume, an abandonment that results from their decreasing vitality and a change of urgent interest. We do not solve them; we get over them.

"The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy," John Dewey

The Waves

'Now to sum up,' said Bernard. 'Now to explain to you the meaning of my life. Since we do not know each other (though I meant you once, I think, on board a ship going to Africa), we can talk freely. The illusion is upon me that something adheres for a moment, has roundness, weight, depth, is completed. This, for the moment, seems to be my life. If it were possible, I would hand it to you entire...

'But unfortunately, what I see (this globe, full of figures) you do not see. You see me, sitting at a table opposite you, a rather heavy, elderly man, grey at the temples. You see me take my napkin and unfold it...But in order to make you understand, to give you my life, I must tell you a story - and there are so many, and so many - stories of childhood, stories of school, love, marriage, death, and so on; and none of them are true...How tired I am of stories...'

The Waves, Virginia Woolf

Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Way of the World

Of those few fools, who with ill stars are cursed,
Sure scribbling fools, called poets, fare the worst:
For they're a sort of fools which Fortune makes,
And after she has made 'em fools, forsakes.
With nature's oafs 'tis quite a different case,
For Fortune favors all her idiot race.

The Way of the World: Prologue, William Congreve

Thursday, August 23, 2007

In the Freud Archives

We are all perpetually smoothing and rearranging reality to conform to our wishes; we lie to others and to ourselves constantly, unthinkingly. When, occasionally—and not by dint of our own efforts but under the pressure of external events—we are forced to see things as they are, we are like naked people in a storm. There are a few among us—psychoanalysts have encountered them—who are blessed or cursed with a strange imperviousness to the unpleasantness of self-knowledge. Their lies to themselves are so convincing that they are never unmasked. These are the people who never feel in the wrong, who are always able to justify their conduct, and who in the end—human nature being what it is—cause their fallible fellow-men to turn away from them.

In the Freud Archives, Janet Malcolm

A Dilettante's Guide to Art

The dilettantes are always right, because paintings are for looking at, and because every claim about what painting “should be” gets shriveled and old and academic even before the canvas does. The dilettante doesn’t care much about what painting “should be,” only about what it is and has been. And the thing that keeps this standpoint from being utterly trivial is the hint of melancholy in it. The dilettante is interested in all things equally because in the long eye of time all things are equally transient. Looking can become delightful again from that perspective, but it is tinged with the mark of death. The dilettante acknowledges this mark, and then goes about the business of living.

"A Dilettante's Guide to Art," Morgan Meis
The Smart Set, August 22, 2007

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Enamoured Knight

For by the end of the novel Cervantes has pricked the balloon of reader certainty over and over again. For example, the reader never knows exactly what happened in the cave of Montesinos, and later, the Don Quixote impostor, who enters the novel as a fictional character in the spurious second volume, erupts into Don Quixote itself as a real if debased double of the old knight himself. The latter is an instance of the bookish games Cervantes plays with the logic of reality, text and fiction. In other passages he discusses the composition of the book, talks about its critical reception, and otherwise tries to seduce the reader into the relativized universe of his characters, just as his characters become readers.

This reader abuse is quite clearly meant as an antidote to the kind of lazy, simple-minded reading that drives Alonso Quixano insane. Novels that present themselves as illusions, as substitute realities, are false; only books that advertise their bookish nature, that foreground their technological role in the production of illusion, are true.

The Enamoured Knight, Douglas Glover

Monday, August 20, 2007

Dark Back of Time

The time-honored aspiration of any chrnoicler of survivor - to tell what happened, give an account of what took place, leave a record of events and crimes and exploits - is, in fact, a mere illusion or chimera, or, rather, the phrase and concept themselves are already metaphorical and partake of fiction. "To tell what happened" is inconceivable and futile, or possible only as invention. The idea of testimony is also futile and there has never been a witness who could truly fulfill his duty. Anyway, you always go forget far too many moments and hours and days and months and years, and the scar on a thigh that I saw and kissed every day for years during its known and lost time. You forget whole years, and not necessarily the least important ones.

Dark Back of Time, Javier Marias

The Art of the Novel

Indeed, it's important to understand what a novel is. A historian tells you about events that have taken place. By contrast, Raskolnikov's crime never saw the light of day. A novel examines not reality but existence. And existence is not what has occured, existence is the realm of human possibilities, everything man can become, everything he's capable of. Novelists draw up the map of existence by examining this or that human possibility.

The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Enamoured Knight

When we read we mime loss repetitively and in the process it seems to accrete meaning, the sense of being planned, fated or the will of the gods; we enjoy the sense of participating in a larger story, we experience the passion of the hero and, after, the generous perspective of pity and distance. What does come with repetition is a sense of mastery and control. This is the essence of repetition as a cognitive tool; it's the reason children play house or tennis players stand in front of ball machines endlessly hitting backhand shots. In the experience of reading, which is emotional rather than cognitive, we somehow find loss easier to bear.

The Enamoured Knight, Douglas Glover

Friday, August 17, 2007


When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste:

Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death's dateless night,
And weep afresh love's long since cancell'd woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish'd sight:

Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o'er
The sad account of fore-bemoanèd moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.

But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.

"Sonnet 30," William Shakespeare

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Tell it slant

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant---
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightening to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind---

Emily Dickinson

The Mutability of Literature

There rise authors now and then who seem proof against the mutability of language because they have rooted themselves in the unchanging principles of human nature. They are like gigantic trees that we sometimes see on the banks of a stream, which by their vast and deep roots, penetrating through the mere surface and laying hold on the very foundations of the earth, preserve the soil around them from being swept away by the ever-flowing current, and hold up many a neighboring plant, and perhaps worthless weed, to perpetuity. Such is the case with Shakespeare, whom we behold defying the encroachments of time, retaining in modern use the language and literature of his day, and giving duration to many an indifferent author, merely from having flourished in his vicinity. But even he, I grieve to say, is gradually assuming the tint of age, and his whole form is overrun by a profusion of commentators, who, like clambering vines and creepers, almost bury the noble plant that upholds them.

"The Mutability of Literature," Washington Irving

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

On the Distance Between Literary and Real-Life Narratives

One serious danger in modelling real-life narratives on literary ones is that a kind of mysticism is encouraged which assigns meanings to facts in the world. A misplaced functionality might encourage this but also, and worse, a misplaced teleology. The Teleology Principle in literature seeks explanations of literary events in their contribution to artistic structure. When real-life narratives take on the appearance of artistic structures - and again biographies and autobiographies sometimes aspire to this - they can easily foster the illusion of seeing lives themselves as works of art. Narratives are dangerous and distorting when they appear to offer false explanations: 'that first meeting was no coincidence, it was meant to happen', 'the seeds of a tragic life were there from the beginning', and so on. Narratives find patterns in people's lives and give structure. There is nothing wrong with that. But the literary model, where patterns are deliberately created and can determine (and thus explain) fictional content, is entirely inappropriate for narratives of real lives. Explanations for non-fictional events must stay in the realm of causes and reasons. Nothing in the real world happens because some structured design determines that it must happen.

"On the Distance Between Literary and Real-Life Narratives," Peter Lamarque


I sometimes feel as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can't believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don't imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.

Gilead, Marilynne Robinson

Tuesday, August 14, 2007


To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a
berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know anything so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is foreshadowing -- the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one's hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, longing, like an angel, fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild strawberries.

Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson


But I've developed a great reputation for wisdom by ordering more books than I ever had time to read, and reading more books, by far, than I learned anything useful from, except, of course, that some very tedious gentlemen have written books. That is not a new insight, but the truth of it is something you have to experience to fully grasp.

Thank God for them all, of course, and for that strange interval, which was most of my life, when I read out of loneliness, and when bad company was much better than no company. You can love a bad book for its haplessness or pomposity or gall, if you have that starveling appetite for things human, which I devoutly hope you never will have.

Gilead, Marilynne Robinson

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Moviegoer

Ours is the only civilization in history which has enshrined mediocrity as its national ideal. Others have been corrupt, but leave it to us to invent the most undistinguished of corruptions.

The Moviegoer, Walker Percy

Saturday, August 11, 2007


She said: 'Rejoice, for God has brought you to your fiftieth year in the world!' But she had no inkling that, for my part, there is no difference at all between my days which have gone by and the distant days of Noah about which I have heard. I have nothing in the world but the hour in which I am: it pauses for a moment, and then, like a cloud, moves on.

Samuel Hanagid, 996-1056
Vizier to the King of Granada

Friday, August 10, 2007

Human, All too Human

Brave, carefree, mocking, forceful - this is how wisdom wants us to be.

Human, All too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, Friedrich Nietzsche

Thursday, August 9, 2007


So long as my spirit still
Is glad of breath
And lifts its plumes of pride
In the dark face of death;
While I am curious still
Of love and fame,
Keeping my heart too high
For the years to tame,
How can I quarrel with fate
Since I can see
I am a debtor to life,
Not life to me?

"Debtor", Sara Teasdale

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Under the Sign of Saturn (x2)

The ethical task of the modern writer is to be not a creator but a destroyer - a destroyer of shallow inwardness, the consoling notion of the universally human, dilettantish creativity, and empty phrases.

The hard truth is that what may be acceptable in elite culture may not be acceptable in mass culture, that tastes which pose only innocent ethical issues as the property of a minority become corrupting when they become more established. Taste is context, and the context has changed.

Under the Sign of Saturn, Susan Sontag

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

On Bullshit

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensible that he consider his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care if the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

"On Bullshit," Harry Frankfurt

Monday, August 6, 2007

The Uses of Philosophy

Empty is that philosopher's argument by which no human suffering is therapeutically treated. For just as there is no use for a medical art that does not cast out the sickness of bodies, so too there is no use in philosophy, unless it casts out the suffering of the soul.

Epicurus (341-271 BCE)

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Against Theory

The theoretical impulse, as we have described it, always involves the attempt to separate things that should not be separated: on the ontological side, meaning from intention, language from speech acts; on the epistemological side, knowledge from true belief. Our point has been that the separated terms are in fact inseparable. It is tempting to end by saying that theory and practice too are inseparable. But this would be a mistake. Not because theory and practice (unlike the other terms) really are separate but because theory is nothing else but the attempt to escape practice. Meaning is just another name for expressed intention, knowledge just another name for true belief, but theory is not just another name for practice. It is the name for all the ways people have tried to stand outside practice in order to govern practice from without. Our thesis has been that no one can reach a position outside practice, that theorists should stop trying, and that the theoretical enterprise should therefore come to an end.

"Against Theory," Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels

Saturday, August 4, 2007

A Winter's Tale

What you do
Still betters what is done. When you speak, sweet,
I'd have you do it ever; when you sing,
I'd have you buy and sell so; so give alms;
Pray so; and, for the ordering your affairs,
To sing them too: when you do dance, I wish you
A wave o' the sea, that you might ever do
Nothing but that; move still, still so, and own
No other function: each your doing,
So singular in each particular,
Crowns what you are doing in the present deeds,
That all your acts are queens.

A Winter's Tale, William Shakespeare
Act IV, Scene IV

Thursday, August 2, 2007

After the End of Art

With modernism, the conditions of representation themselves become central, so that art in a way becomes its own subject. This was almost precisely the way in which Clement Greenberg defined the matter in his famous 1960 essay "Modernist Painting." "The essence of modernism," he wrote, "lies, as I see it, in the use of the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence." Interestingly, Greenberg took as his model of modernist thought the philosopher Immanuel Kant: "Because he was the first to criticize the means itself of criticism, I conceive of Kant as the first real Modernist." Kant did not see philosophy as adding to our knowldge so much as answering the question of how knowledge was possible.

After the End of Art, Arthur C. Danto

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Home Land

"A sorcerer?" said Gwendolyn, one of the few times I told her this tale. "Just because she ate your candy bar? My mom guzzled rye and beat us. My uncle put his dick in my armpit while I slept. My cousin hid my college acceptance letter until it was too late to reply. Your mother ate your candy bar?"
"It's symbolic."
"That's what people say when they know they've come with the weak shit."
"Fuck you," I said.
"Excuse me?"
"I said Fuck you," I said. "I've been meaning to say it for a long time. I just couldn't find the right words."
Yes, this exchange occurred during a particularly frenzied juncture in our unraveling, but I always thought Gwendolyn missed the point of my story. The candy bar incident, aside from its obvious revelations regarding my character, or the deformation thereof, imparts a tremendous lesson about life's treats in general: munch immediately! Maybe that could be a chapter in the self-help book I've been meaning to write, The Seven Habits of Highly Disappointed People, which I could probably bang out in an afternoon if I weren't so busy updating you fine people on the latest in the life of me.

Sam Lipsyte, 2004

Quasi Sonnet

There is nothing that leads to nothing.
Even to sit in a room, quiet and nude
as Blaise Pascal, will have some effect

on Tanzania maybe, or on New Guinea,
just as the beating wings of a lepidopter–
according to the proverb about butterflies in Peru–

could incite a tidal wave in Shanghai,
or knock down an Iraqi helicopter.

And so we become ourselves, hypocrite lecteur,
at the very least accomplices, you and I.

"Quasi Sonnet," Paulo Henriques Britto
Translated from Portuguese by Idra Novey, 2007