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Below are the 20 most recent journal entries recorded in Jake's LiveJournal:

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    Saturday, September 6th, 2014
    1:57 pm
    Opportunity lost
    I've been reading Terra Nostra, by Carlos Fuentes. This is a massive novel, with lots of different themes, but one of them emerges near the end of the book. One of the novel's prominent characters, Ludovico (a Spaniard), has been working for an eccentric and hermetic scholar in Venice (the time period being roughly the late fifteenth/early sixteenth century), who has just shown Ludovico a device the scholar had been secretly maintaining, a theater that illuminates all of the possible courses of history in a kind of shimmering, mechanical enlightenment:

    Look again, monsignore; I shall turn the lights on again, place the figures in movement, combine spaces, that of your land, Spain, and that of an unknown world where Spain will destroy everything that previously existed in order to reproduce itself: a doubly immobile, doubly sterile, gestation, for in addition to what could have been - see those burning temples, see the eagles fall, see how the original inhabitants of the unknown lands are subjugated - your country, Spain, imposes another impossibility: that of itself, see the gates closing, the Jew expelled, the Moor persecuted, see how it hides itself in a mausoleum and from there governs in the name of death: purity of faith, purity of bloodlines, horror of the body, prohibition of thought, extermination of anything that cannot be understood. Look: centuries and centuries of living death, fear, silence, the cult of appearances, vacuity of substances, gestures of imbecilic honor, see them, the miserable realities, see them, hunger, poverty, injustice, ignorance: a naked empire that imagines itself clothed in golden robes. Look: there will never be in history, monsignore, nations more needful of a second opportunity to be what they were not than these that speak and that will speak your tongue, or people who for such lengthy periods store the possibilities of what they could have been had they not sacrificed the very reason for their being: impurity, the mixture of all bloods, all beliefs, all the spiritual impulses of a multitude of cultures. Only in Spain did the three peoples of the Book - Christians, Moors, and Jews - meet and flourish. And she mutilates their union, Spain mutilates herself and mutilates all she finds in her path. Will these lands have the second opportunity the first history will deny them?

    Among other themes, Fuentes' novel laments Spain's lost promise and legacy of death in the New World, this being perhaps his most direct statement to that effect. (I suspect that it's also to an extent a lament of Franco and his legacy, although this might just be a convenient projection on the novel's despotic central figure.)

    It makes me think about the cliched trope of the "Great American Novel." Setting aside most of what we can say about that notion, the one thing that I think is true of pretty much any conceptualization of what that would be, or what works embody its ideal, is the notion that it would somehow have to capture what it means to be an "American." Of a particular time, for a particular group of people. Whatever. It's about an ideal, in other words.

    But I wonder if anyone has written the "Great Anti-American Novel," a novel that identifies and grapples with America's lost promise and our miserable legacy. It's hard for me to even imagine what that would look like, our collective national optimism is so firmly written into my constitution. What is our great, lost opportunity? What promise have we wholly failed to keep?
    Sunday, August 31st, 2014
    5:00 pm
    Kids these days
    A few videos:

    [Several YouTube Embeds Hidden]

    Iggy Azalea:



    DJ Snake and Lil Jon:



    Nikki Minaj:



    So I try to keep my ear turned to what's happening in contemporary pop music, just because I find the ways that it develops (potentially) fascinating, in a kind of musicological sense, while also being a source for new music that I enjoy for its own sake. When listening to this music, I try to listen to it in a respectful state of mind - not prematurely dismissive of strange sounds or musical approaches that abandon a lot of what "makes sense" in a classically-trained sort of way.

    (Fair's fair, right? This is the kind of thing that pops up on my personal playlist:)



    But despite this state of mind, I'm having a lot of trouble keeping up with some of this pop music. It's genuinely hard for me to hear what it is about this music that makes it appealing to anyone. To my ears, this sounds like music of the apocalypse.

    (Again, in fairness:)




    Aware of my own cultural limitations, I suppose all I can responsibly do is wait and see. But I am legitimately flummoxed by some of this music.
    Sunday, August 17th, 2014
    9:40 pm
    But here is one thing I can say about myself right now
    Ryan and I are moving to New York. Ryan, at the end of this week. Me, sometime in the next several months, after I've gotten the office transfer and bar admission stuff sorted. Hopefully sooner than later, but the bar admission process may dictate a certain schedule.

    As I've written previously, Ryan is going out for a post-baccalaureate program at Columbia, where he'll focus on developing his languages (Classical Greek and Latin), as a step towards applying to (and hopefully gaining admission to) a grad school that would actually help him to get a job. The program is itself only one year, but he's potentially planning on being out there for two, since that will give him some time to develop relationships with professors before asking for their recommendations to programs. I am skeptical about post-baccs generally, but Columbia's alumni of the program seem to have done well, so who knows.

    I am following because I've realized that I, well - need him. He is an important part of what keeps me sane. I will go insane when he's not around.

    Our planned apartment is going to be in Long Island City - LIC, as it's been rebranded. I have mixed feelings about this. It's not really a "hip" neighborhood, as far as I can tell, and it is plenty expensive, so I expect to be surrounded by a certain population that is extremely familiar, shall we say. Our apartment is straight-up yuppie, though the corner of LIC it's in is more near-yuppie. It's hard to describe. It looks a bit like some neighborhoods in the near northwestern parts of Chicago, complete with elevated trains. Court Square is a bit like Wicker Park, etc.

    Also as I've written previously, to a certain extent, this is a development that we've both for some time felt was coming. Me, perhaps, longer than him. Chicago is a smart place to set down roots; it is inexpensive relative to New York, and its midwestern roots make it feel unthreatening. No one would say, "If you can make it in Chicago, you can make it anywhere." More like, "If you can make it in Chicago, then Chicago's probably a good fit for you." But it's not challenging, it's not a place to dream. And while New York is less a dreamer's tinderbox than it once was, there seems to be enough chaos there and enough real commitment to making it work, for it to bring out the best in at least some of its residents. I'm not sure that the U.S. has any better place for it besides other places still so under the radar that I'd never know about them.

    So anyway, that's coming. I'll have to give up my long rides on the lakefront, the proximity of excellent bookstores, and the dream (still unrealized) that I'll make serious use of my alumni privileges at the UofC. Instead I'll be diving into the war that is New York.

    I'm looking forward to it.
    9:13 pm
    I don't know where you've gone, but I feel somehow responsible
    I've been looking over my friend-of list. A lot of old, well-remembered names, attached to accounts that now seem entirely defunct.

    There's 1144, the mood-swingy objectivist. booksoverbombs, pintofmalaga, turkishb, each of them a genius, each of them no doubt gone in search of higher levels of engagement. moremi, the corrupted soul who thought I would find his charm irresistable. Three of my siblings are there; two of my former law-school classmates. And then there are the dozen or so friendly interlocutors with whom I've crossed paths over my years on LJ, come and gone. None of them are active; most have been wholly inactive for several years now.

    I am not to blame for their inactivity, but I haven't helped. I myself have gone largely silent, as my vulnerability to real-life scrutiny and my lack of anything worthy to say have undercut a substantial number of potential topics. That seems to be grown-up life, really, when you have a job like mine. What am I going to talk about - the commute?
    Sunday, June 15th, 2014
    2:30 pm
    Juicy Fruit
    The other day I walked past a random piece of litter on the ground, a bright yellow square of packaging for Juicy Fruit. It immediately brought to mind the familiar jingle from my youth, a thirty- or fifteen-second generic riff in a genre that I find hard to describe as anything other than "jingle music of the eighties." My first response to this mental phenomenon was a kind of indignation. I was irritated that the marketers of that era had so deeply implanted this useless, horrible jingle into my brain that it would re-emerge whole, unbidden save for the mere words "juicy fruit," decades after I'd last heard the jingle - or chewed any piece of gum, for that matter.

    But that indignation pre-supposes the existence of some "proper" mind or self on which the jingle has infringed. I resent the intrusion, but into what? What is my mental space, but the emergent phenomenon of millions of impressions and thousands of time-worn habits? In a sense, the "juicy fruit" jingle is as much a part of "me," this mental phenomenon that also motivates me to write this blog post and hope that someone, somewhere, might read and appreciate it, as is my vicarious experience of the Challenger accident and 9/11, of the pornographic magazine a classmate in grade school showed me once while we were walking home after school one day, the events that led to my broken arm in a game of kickball in the third grade, the parties in college, the night at O'Hare with a copy of Infinite Jest, and on and on. Isn't it? And if it is, then whence this critical faculty, which hopes to sift between that which is "me" and that which is mere ephemera, something unworthy of inclusion within my self-conceptualization - if not those same things?

    The truth of it, I have to suspect, is that my critical faculty is just as much a product of an arbitrary history of personal experiences as the rest of my "mind" is. There is no, and there never was, any intentional guiding of its formation save what might have occurred by happenstance over comparatively brief periods of time - a college class here, a friendship there.

    And if this is so - then how can I privilege any particular view of what I am, what I am to do with my life, as being in some sense "correct?" Intellectual application and inquiry are things that - I feel - make my life worth living. I want my intellectual practice to build towards something, to amount to something. Now I am accustomed to treating this desire as no more respectable than, say, a desire to play as many video games as possible, to do as much good in the world as possible, etc., because I am skeptical about the kinds of vindicating (or disapprobative) standards our society uses to assess such desires. I am not sure, so to say, that they amount to much. But what if, further than this, I cannot even claim any genuine authorship for my life's purpose? If the very notion of shaping my own life to a particular end is, itself, a fiction that covers how deeply and beyond my rational control even my most existential projects are?

    Perhaps that's why, ultimately, what I want from this life is an inquiry that ends in constant confusion and frustration. There's no reason to expect a coherent answer to a question motivated by a desire that is irrational. My personality is just an assemblage of litter, layered on top of itself, several meters thick, that takes shape and substance in ways that feel like having a self, but it's nothing but random, accumulated junk all the way through. I might just as easily yearn to reach the stars, as to hope that my intellectual efforts might amount to anything. We're all just mimetic beasts.
    Wednesday, June 4th, 2014
    9:27 pm
    Why I think about moving to Europe
    I don't think I've ever shared this before.

    Two videos of the same scene, from Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel. The opera generally follows the fairy tale we know; the scene is the witch's showstopper in the last act, as she prepares the children for their imminent transformation into gingerbread.

    The first video is from a relatively recent Metropolitan Opera production, which was also brought to Chicago for a recent Lyric season:



    The inspiration here is supposed to be a kind of mad Julia Child. The production was (as far as I know) relatively well-received, particularly in its rendition of the second act. And I suppose you might as well acknowledge that it departs from the traditional staging, which was something of a risk for what is, in most opera seasons, a reliable audience attraction for the holiday season.

    But then there's this, from Glyndebourne (an annual summer festival held south of London):



    Whereas the first production finds an edge on the American cultural lexicon, in an opera that's often received as a Dickensian fable about hunger, the second production aims squarely for the political and transforms the opera's 19th-century message about hunger into one about modern-day malnutrition by cheap, processed food. Whereas the first production takes a recognizable female personality and simply en-"witches" her, the second production explicitly exploits our gender-normative intuitions and invites us to react with disgust at the witch's lack of femininity. (Note that the role is not necessarily sung by men; that's just the case in these two productions. The one I saw in Chicago was sung by a woman.)

    These kinds of thoroughly modern productions are, it's commonly felt, often hit-or-miss, and sometimes they are so aggressive with the source material that it results in total incoherence. (For example, Bayreuth put on a new production of Wagner's Ring cycle which was broadly criticized for, among other things, this reason.) But I love it. The first thing I did after learning about the Glyndebourne festival's production was try to figure out how to get there sometime. I just want to run to the culture that tolerates and celebrates this kind of experimentation - away from the safe, the wearily time-tested and audience-approved, simply canonical repertoire of works and interpretations that is typical of the American classical music scene.

    It takes me a minute, sometimes, to remember that these cultures are often just as deeply flawed as the American is. I'd really like to live in France someday - or I think so, anyway - but then I realize I'm talking about a country that is still deeply sexist (even misogynistic) and racist, in ways that seem to be unacceptable in at least some parts of the U.S. The same can go for much of the continent and the U.K., to varying degrees and mixes.
    Sunday, April 20th, 2014
    9:43 pm
    36
    I will be 36 in just over a month. The number is not significant except for drawing comparisons. At 36, for instance, I'll be able to say that there are people now passing into adulthood who were born only after I had myself done so. At 36, my father had five kids, the oldest of us (i.e., me) only 8 or 9 years old.

    Astonishing, to think of it. I don't remember being 9 very well. I recall snippets. I remember learning cursive and my third-grade classroom, which was really a hybrid classroom - a single teacher for two grades stuffed into the same room. I was not yet the bookish, socially-awkward, friendless nerd that would be my identity through roughly high school (when I became slightly less antisocial), but all of the seeds were there, I'm sure - all of that would begin in the fourth grade. I try to imagine myself, raising a nine-year-old child while also raising all of the younger children - an infant, a toddler/preschooler, and a kindergartener among them.

    I see more of my father in my face these days. Not that I think I look like him - maybe I do, but that's not what I see nor what I mean. I mean more the world-weariness, the rough skin. Every once in a while I'll see the shadows the sun casts across my face in a mirror and I'll recognize the lack of youthful smoothness that I found kind of gross, as a child. But no, that's me, that's my face, that's the layers of my skin beginning the slow process of aging decay.

    It won't be long before I'll have to recategorize my existential quandaries, no longer as the product of a delayed youth or stunted maturation enabled by a lack of child-rearing responsibilities, but rather as a bona fide midlife crisis. I'll have to figure out what to call them when I'm sixty.
    Saturday, April 12th, 2014
    10:57 pm
    No picture, because that's how I roll
    New bike. A bit of buyer's remorse, to be honest; not sure I got the sort of bike I really needed. We'll see, I suppose.

    It's a road bike. Not pure entry-level, but not a high-end racer, either. I thought I would get a road bike as a back-up to my current commuter, which is a hybrid, because I thought it would enable the sort of riding I actually do, which is: as fast as possible, with increasing mileage on each ride. It's light, the posture works a bit better, conveys a bit more power. Fast and good in the wind. But it may not prove to be a good commuter.

    It is fancy, even a bit ostentatious. I don't want to be that guy, but here I've gone and bought that guy's bike. So I guess I'm that guy now.
    Thursday, April 10th, 2014
    10:10 pm
    Threeby
    Some weeks ago, I purchased an app/puzzle game called Threeby. I don't have much to say about it except that I found it very addicting, to the point where I had to delete it in order to get anything done. Then I would re-download it, waste an embarrassing amount of time on it again, and then re-delete it.

    I think that whole cycle lasted about three-four days. I haven't re-downloaded it since I saw an infographic illustrating the amount of time people generally played the game (user activity is apparently tracked by Threeby's creators). The creators' proudly noting that people on average spent one half-hour a day on the app managed to trigger my contrarian-indignation reflex. The cheek, I thought.

    The brief encounter with a highly-addictive, easily-digested game (the game consists of lots of simple, easy, and quick moves, with end-games occurring frequently) changed, in a strangely persistent way, my sense of time. At the stage where I was trying to moderate my usage, I would take note of the amount of time I spent playing. You have five minutes, I might say. And then five minutes pass, and I realized how thoroughly unsatisfied by that brief period I was.

    Ever since, I've been much more highly attuned to the way that minutes gather into hours; how short hours turn out to be; how a day can fly by if you're not paying attention or even if you are. It is so hard to get anything done in the productive time our easily-overcome bodies allow us each day. There is, really, no time to waste.

    This is, truly, kind of terrifying. Thanks, Threeby.
    Thursday, April 3rd, 2014
    8:51 pm
    There might be one LJ friend who understands this piece
    But I thought I'd share anyway (Berio's Sinfonia, Third Movement):



    The movement consists largely of musical quotations, layered on top of and against one another. So if you don't know the canonical pieces it cites, you might not appreciate it as much. If it sounds confusing and almost wrong - well, it's supposed to. I love it love it love it.
    Friday, March 21st, 2014
    10:57 pm
    Mahler
    I hate to admit it, but I love Mahler. I hate to admit it because Mahler is a composer that everyone loves these days; he's a reliable ticket-seller, with the result that symphonies (like the Chicago Symphony) will over-program him rather than exploring other, less well-known composers and works.

    To try to show why, I thought I might draw a comparison with an earlier, master symphonist - Mozart:



    Now, I don't want to demean Mozart's skill or suggest that there's nothing interesting going on here. (If I wanted to do that, I would have found a Haydn symphony.) There's a pleasing elegance to this music. That said, it works within the boundaries of the symphonic form, as conceived in his time. There are sonata forms, rondos, predictable modulations, etc. Part of listening to this music is learning to hear its guideposts and breathing with its permeating periodicity. It's a music whose excellence is discerned in the tossing of a grace note.

    Compare with this the world-cracking audacity of a Mahler symphony:



    Mahler's symphonies don't dispense with the formal regularity that characterized the symphony from its invention - not entirely, at any rate. But you won't find anything like the pedantic assertion of the tonic like you will at the beginning of the Mozart symphony - not without having the rug pulled out from under you. Mahler's symphonies ask questions, celebrate their answers, and then immediately call those answers into doubt, in ways that you just couldn't do when your ultimate goal is a recapitulation in the tonic key.

    Mahler's symphonies are crowd-pleasing because they are bombastic, obvious, and - I'm inclined to believe this has a lot to do with the cheers and ovations I encounter in symphony halls - unapologetically loud. But I love them because you can get lost in them; every single one (excepting, perhaps, the fourth) is a journey.
    Wednesday, March 19th, 2014
    9:14 pm
    Paul Ryan, a traditional conservative
    A lot of heat has been generated by Paul Ryan's recent comments about "inner-city culture." Here's my transcription of his comments, taken in broader context than has typically been reported:

    And so, that's this tailspin or spiral that we're looking at in our communities. You know - your buddy, Charles Murray or Bob Putnam, over at Harvard - those guys have written books on this - which is, we have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working, and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning to value a culture of work. And so there's a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with; everybody's gotta get involved. So this is what we talk about, when we talk about "civil society." If you're driving from the suburb, you know, to the sports arena downtown, by these blighted neighborhoods, you can't just say, "I'm paying my taxes, government's going to fix that"; you need to get involved. You need to get involved yourself, whether through a good mentor program, or some religious charity, whatever it is, to make a difference, and that's how we help resuscitate our culture.

    I don't view the question of whether his comments were racist to be horribly interesting. Because: (1) of course they were, and (2) debating the issue against apologists taking the contrary stance is a fruitless prospect. There is no popular consensus on what it even means to be racist, in the public discourse, so it's wrong to expect that there could be any value in trying to reach some valid conclusion about it without being far more precise about what it means to be "racist" in the first instance.

    I'd like to focus, rather, on how un-conservative Ryan's comments struck me, at least at first. Because here we find ourselves in the throes of a conservative, libertarian resurgence that would seem to view statements about changing cultures from a politician as anathema. Inner-city culture isn't any more valid a target for colonization and whitewashing than is the (apparently) suburban-dwelling, pro-sports-attending bourgeoisie, on this view; people ought to be free to live the lives they choose. If the inner city thinks they can get by living the way they do, why shouldn't their choice be presumptively entitled to respect?

    Of course, my initial impression was mistaken. It's wrong to think that Ryan's comments are out of place in the GOP, since this has been their line for decades - for as long as I've been paying attention, which is to say at least since Reagan. But that's just the puzzle! Reagan-era conservatism was all about big, powerful government; deficit spending; dubious government interference in local communities. Ryan is supposed to be coming to his political ascendancy at precisely the moment when conservatives are supposedly rejecting that governing philosophy.

    This inconsistency can be seen by asking a simple question: what does Ryan think government can do about this "tailspin of culture?" Notably, he only prescribes individual action - no big-government solutions. But certainly underlying his statement is the understanding that government is the problem (another Reagan-era slogan; are we to surmise that Ryan would ignore it as much as Reagan did?). Cut social welfare, cut the safety net - and the culture will follow. Right? That would seem to be the implicit suggestion.

    But that's centralized social engineering, just as much as empowering labor unions or incentivizing people to buy health insurance is. It's precisely the sort of thing that the Tea Partiers are convinced we can't effectively do through the government. According to their own ideology, we can't be any more sure that reducing government interference in "inner city culture" will produce the desired change in that culture than we can be sure that interference will help it. (Because were it otherwise, it would follow that there might be ways in which government interference could help - we just have to figure them out.)

    Really - that's how we know Ryan's comments are racist. Not because he speaks in coded language, sounding dog-whistle themes. But because even taking his comments at their face value betrays a bizarre metaphysics, where people living in the "inner city" have been somehow shaped in a way that their virtuous suburban would-be benefactors have simply escaped. And how could you, in turn, believe that your intervention is what's needed to turn it around?
    Wednesday, March 5th, 2014
    10:48 pm
    The possibility of radicalism
    I use the term "radical" and "radicalism" to describe a perspective of the world that rejects hegemonic dialectics in favor of views and discourses that challenge the underlying assumptions of those dialectics. A radical might reject conventional ideals regarding the equality of the sexes, for example, by asking whether "equality" is really something we want, whether this "equality" really amounts to a subjugation of one sex to another, whether we really ought to be talking about "gender" rather than "sex," and so on. And a radical wouldn't stop there - that is what is essential about the radical perspective. There must always be the sneaking suspicion that any level of analysis is one level too shallow, that there might be something yet further to understand or discover beneath that in fact shapes and directs what happens above.

    As such, the value of radicalism seems clear. It can identify and illuminate conditions that ensure the perpetuation of problems that define the hegemonic dialectics with which we otherwise find ourselves preoccupied. It can lead to changing those conditions; or it can reject that the conditions ought to be changed or the "problems" solved. Radicalism can and ultimately should cleanse our thinking of the assumptions that we have failed to notice.

    I've sometimes worried that radicalism is not suited to American society, at this point in time. Not that there's nothing to be radical about; the problem is more the lack of an audience. Our tolerance for radicalism seems exhausted; the attitude might be described as one of repugnance.

    Who cares, for instance, about the regression implicit in the widening support for same-sex marriage? Eager to embrace a non-threatening minority, white, elite liberals in this country have come to champion the cause, and in so doing they are putting in place the one avenue to tolerance of gayness in American workplaces and society. It's fine to be gay, in other words, if you settle down, have kids, and otherwise join the common misery we call the "American dream." I can't think of a single gay person I can articulate this complaint to without eliciting the response: some people want this. It is a step forward. That is the message of the hegemonic LGBT groups. That is the agenda, and no one thinks that the objection is all that relevant. I mean - what's being lost? If I can't articulate a harm that is greater than the gain, do I have anything to complain about?

    The problem with this objection to the radical perspective is that it overlooks the possibility that the radical perspective is required even to identify, articulate, or understand such harms. Radicalism is, at root, at this moment in American history, a rejection of complacency in all its forms, wherever it emerges. From the complacent perspective, it is hard to see the point of radicalism; this is how it perpetuates itself. This is what makes radicalism seem so hopeless and useless. But it's only after we've rejected complacency that we are even capable of understanding how we might otherwise order our lives.
    Thursday, February 20th, 2014
    10:21 pm
    Leading Lawyers
    At work, I receive (compulsorily, it would seem) a publication called Leading Lawyers. It's not clear to me what kind of publication this is. It presents itself as a something capable of carrying information one might want to learn, though as a matter of fact it appears to be primarily a vehicle for lawyers to advertise to other lawyers. Much of its content consists of full-page advertisement for small law firms, interspersed among profiles of apparently leading lawyers.

    Flipping through its pages, one can't help but be struck by the iconography. Many of these ads feature their entire lawyer-lineup, in dark suits and ties, standing in three-quarter profile, posing in front of their offices, local landmarks. Walls of books - caselaw reporters, typically - are also common backgrounds. Mostly white faces, mostly male faces. White, pale, pudgy.

    One question: why this uniformity? How can it arise? Who devises these images and layouts? They can't possibly think that bringing all of the lawyers together to pose in front of a recognizable background will mark the firm out from its competitors, like it's an arresting image. That's what they practically all are. So is it just something passable? Like the composer of the image figured that the very possibility of uniqueness was foreclosed, so it would be better to go for something that no one would find offensive?

    It's hard to look at this sea of ill-fitting wool and not wonder. These are, after all, my ilk. White, pale. Maybe not as pudgy. But I've got the same suits, jackets, and ties. My work is like their work. We're all scrambling in the same general industry. Just trying to pass.
    Wednesday, February 5th, 2014
    10:16 pm
    Keeping it shor-
    Standing on the crowded train this morning, I observed my co-travellers, queuing and disembarking, a crowd of hunched shoulders and caps of varying sizes and textures, and I thought - idly to myself - about all of the pain, suffering, and loss ahead of them, including their (our) inevitable deaths; every one of them, one day destined to inhabit a box or an urn. What will it be, for you - inquiring: colorectal cancer? Breast cancer? Prostate cancer? Lung cancer? Heart disease? Complications of diabetes? Perhaps some will die slowly, losing themselves over the course of years, their deaths finally arriving at an asymptote beyond their loss of self-awareness. The lucky ones, I suppose, will die young-ish and healthy-ish, suddenly and without warning or pain - their lives unfulfilled, perhaps, but that lack of fulfillment never grasped by them, the way I suppose it might come to me one day, sitting in the spacious lobby of a retirement home in Arizona, beyond all hope of learning Latin or fully grasping Aristotle's nuances or reigniting my clever mathematical mind.

    It's with these thoughts that I sometimes wonder if I mightn't be better-served by living much more "adventurously" than I do. The greatest risk I present myself these days is a slippery bike ride on a wintry trail; I ought to go sky-diving, rock-climbing, skiing, all these other things I don't bother missing because they entail what I view to be unnecessary levels of physical risk. Better to die suddenly, with a minimum of fuss, than constantly preoccupied with all of the things I could have done, when I was younger and healthier, with some potential still to explore. And if I don't die doing those things, then I will at least have the experiences - nothing especially unique, in the scheme of things, but at least something.
    Sunday, February 2nd, 2014
    9:11 pm
    What's the point?
    It might seem odd to pick this out from the cultural miasma, but it suits. The existence of films such as That Awkward Moment make me question whether there is any point to life, living, the whole thing.

    Not because it appears to be execrable; no, I am happy to let youth have their fun. I have, in the past few years, come to terms with the fact that there is now another, fully-engaged generation of cultural consumers, whose decisions define and shape the stories and songs we tell and sing to ourselves. I do not understand them, and I don't need to. It's a conversation among themselves, and I can only stand by and marvel at the process. If their hearthrobs want to star in fluffy gross-out comedies about immature boy-men, I won't gainsay them.

    What pushes me into a nihilistic funk about this film is that it makes clear that we are not, exactly, growing as a culture. What progression can be detected between Porky's, Something About Mary, and That Awkward Moment? (Note that those films are approximately equidistant from one another, in terms of time.) Why aren't we learning from those who came before? Becoming - I don't know - more sophisticated in terms of the questions we ask and stories we tell about ourselves? After three decades of this crap, what could possibly be interesting to the upcoming generation about Zac Efron's character and his horrible friends?

    I don't mean to say: why can't this be a smart movie? Like I've said, "let youth have their fun"; that means accepting that a twenty-year-old moviegoer is just going to be somewhat immature in their tastes and sense of humor. But as we've watched each new generation come into a rapidly advancing technological society - with all its ramifications for our non-digital lives - completely at ease with each new step away from the analog days - think about what life was like when Porky's came out - the next generations are asking the same questions we've been asking for decades, at least. Just with devices forged on the edge of an inflection point on Moore's curve. We are, culturally, just repeating ourselves, over and over, one generation to the next, oblivious even to the possibility that we might take a step forward, instead.

    So the question I find myself asking is - what is the point? If about all I can expect to come of my life is to repeat the same kinds of questions and struggles, to reach the same kinds of conclusions, as every generation before me, going back at least a few generations, then what point is there for me to actually do so? If it's all just futile chatter, my pretensions to the contrary notwithstanding, why do I need to add my voice to it?
    Saturday, February 1st, 2014
    7:20 pm
    One fundamental error that libertarians make
    This post, from the NYTimes, suggests one way in which a fairly simple government program could serve to improve the educational, health, and economic outlooks for children born into poverty. Of course, such a government program would be bizarrely anathema to libertarians and conservatives in our political environment, being not just a "handout" but one with infuriatingly few strings attached.

    The hypothetical program speaks to a fundamental consideration that underlies Aristotle's ethics and political theory - how do we become virtuous citizens? In his ethics, we find that a key part of becoming virtuous is learning from other virtuous people; in his political theory, we find a social structure that is designed around teaching citizens how to be virtuous. But it's a consideration that, as far as I've ever seen, no libertarian fully addresses. Libertarians are keen on theories of rights and non-interference that they take to be universal and true, but they rarely ever address the problem of ensuring that others come to espouse and live by those same theories. They might laud charity, as the sort of thing that people should view as morally binding but legally optional, but at the same time they don't offer any assurance that, in a land of the maximally free, anyone else would come to share their views on the importance of charity in a world without government assistance. Their political philosophy never seems to get past square one.

    What's interesting is that neither liberal/progressives nor non-libertarian conservatives seem to have this problem. The liberal/progressive seeks to inculcate the next generation through public schooling, government assistance, smart regulation, and the like. For their part, non-libertarian conservatives might oppose the use of government, but they instead focus on the community - churches, voluntary associations, and the like. The next generation of liberals learn their values by getting an education; the next generation of conservatives learn their values by going to church and building a family. The next generation of libertarians are left on the mountainside for whatever passing goatherd might take an interest.
    Saturday, January 11th, 2014
    8:49 am
    Where we could have gone
    An art exhibit in New York has brought my attention to the work of Richard Serra, and in particular, a now-destroyed work called Tilted Arc. Erected in the early 80's, Tilted Arc was a massive, steel wall installed across a public plaza in front of a federal office building in New York. Its size and its location disrupted the flow of traffic through the plaza; its unfinished surface was designed to rust naturally. It was controversial from the time it went up until, later in the 80's, it was ultimately demolished pursuant to the complaints of federal employees who found the work disruptive and - I suppose - unsightly.

    There's an irony to the story, insofar as Serra's work is intended to physically challenge and shape the viewer's perception of space and the boundary between viewer/artwork. Walking around Tilted Arc wasn't just an "inconvenience" - it was an active engagement with the artwork itself. An active engagement that the work itself forced, in a way that a painting hanging on a wall in a museum can never force on its viewer. So the complaints about the work were, in essence, a testimony of its success; its destruction, in a way, an in-kind performative rejoinder by the American people and/or the federal workforce.

    What was that rejoinder? It was to say that art must be, if anything, something that can easily and safely be ignored. That is just what art is, and especially that is what public art must be. That message continues to be consistent with where we currently stand, at this moment in cultural history, where art is simply a form of titillation of no higher order than any of our other cultural pastimes. The massive Picasso sculpture standing in the Daley Plaza here in Chicago likely survives just-so - nowadays tourists' children climb on it, and periodically the city "dresses" it with Bears or Blackhawk paraphernalia in a way that emphasizes its resemblance to an animal, rather than the woman that is its likely subject. It is safely, that is to say, ignored; its non-representational figure reduced in the public eye into something recognizable, its abstract angles reduced to slides for small children.

    I am not surprised to find the NYTimes endorsing such an attitude to the work of Serra, in the linked piece. Martha Schwendener describes Serra's Tilted Arc as expressing a "myopic misunderstanding of art in the public realm," that fails to see that (here citing Leo Steinberg) "the space of Federal Plaza was [his] 'raw material, but there are a thousand people working there, so this is not raw material but the space of their existence.'" But to intrude on that "space of their existence" was the entire point! Where else is public art to be installed, but in the spaces and concourses where people live their daily lives? How else is art to have an effect on us, if it does not affect us? Schwendener goes on to approve of Serra's gallery-friendly "maturation," writing that "he learned from Tilted Arc, and in succeeding decades, he has expanded the sculptural field in a way that pleases viewers: seducing them into the belly of the sculpture rather than repelling or enraging them." I am astonished that anyone writing about art can notice this change of mode and not lament the loss of an artistic sensibility whose successful engagement can result in something other than pleased satisfaction.

    Well, I do. Though I suppose I lament more deeply the possibility that we have lost New York as an artistic vanguard.
    Thursday, January 9th, 2014
    9:30 pm
    A Modern Politics
    It is not hard to find fault with Aristotle's political theory. Some of the faults might even be fatally inextricable from his theory. Still, I find myself asking: Do we have any better answers, here and now, in the context of American society?

    I may be speaking only of a certain segment of the educated, literate population of the United States - but we seem to be intensely political. And yet we have very little coherent idea of what our politics is for. Compare Aristotle, who begins with a core notion of the human good and then derives from it a theory of the city, which enables the human good (insofar as cities provide opportunities and venues for the expression of human virtue that would not otherwise exist), facilitates the human good (insofar as some human virtues become easier to develop and express in a well-ordered society), and transmits the norms of virtuous living from one generation to the next. Modern political thinking doesn't seem to be animated by any such spirit.

    Suggesting that there might be such a thing as a single "human good" to which we all aspire is anathema to the American political conscience. At the same time, the Declaration of Independence announces the theme of which all of our individual aspirations are simply variations: "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Reconciling, the American conception of the "human good" seems to be as a Humean good (har har), with the key political question being simply how to enable individuals to pursue whatever it is they value as good for themselves, without presuming to select for them.

    But I think accepting this as our answer to Aristotle would be wrong, because it operates on a different level of abstraction. Aristotle could be read to accept the same kind of diversity of well-lived lives; what interests him, ultimately, and what drives his political theory, is what makes those lives "well-lived." So we should resist the impulse to think that the American political ideal - a society where one person is free to live as an artist, another as an investment banker; one as a married family man, the other as a gender-queer, sex-progressive provocateur - fully answers Aristotle's challenge. Allowing that freedom and enlightened self-interest are two important ingredients of the American "human good," what are we to do with them?

    What are they for?
    Thursday, January 2nd, 2014
    10:35 pm
    Biking
    I'd given up on bike commuting for the season, back in October, because it became impossible to get home before sunset and because it was starting to get a bit... chilly. I rode the train for much of October and November, then, until finally deciding earlier in December that I was getting sick of not biking. So I took it up again.

    Winter biking is a constantly surprising experience. You learn a lot more about how your body generates and conserves warmth when you're not only exposed to the blustering snow and wind but moving steadily against it. I've found, for instance, that biking to work is consistently more warm than taking the train and walking the fifteen-twenty minutes or so from the station to my office, just because when I bike, I am generating lots of heat into layers of clothes specifically designed to conserve it. Whereas, in my office clothes - a pair of leather shoes and galoshes over my feet, a single layer of wool over my legs, a winter coat over my torso but not much activity going on underneath, etc. - it's distinctly more unpleasant. Sure, my eyes sting, my lips chap, my toes are numbed by a combination of the cold and the strange properties of the wool socks I put over them. But much warmer, thank you.

    I did not bike today, though - the blizzard-y conditions were a bit much for my level of commitment. Tomorrow promises to be cold, but I should at least be able to see. No promises as to the sub-zero temperatures next week.
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