I labour upwards into futurity.
William Blake?, 1796
25 December 2006
Everybody Knows What Just Aint So
The trouble with most folks ain't so much their ignorance
as knowing so many things that ain't so.
It ain't so much the things we don't know that get us in
trouble. It's the things we know that ain't so.
Faith is believing what you know ain't so.
Mark Twain, Following
the Equator, Chapter XII
Ironically, I have not been able to verify all these quotes from
primary sources. There are several versions of the Billings quote.
Note this version and its explanation:
The trouble with people is not that they dont know
but that they know so much that aint so.
Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations
There's also a book on the subject:
Gilovich, Thomas. How
We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday
Life. New York: Free Press, 1991.
25 December 2006
Jean Meslier (1664 - 1733): Priest, Materialist,
Meslier is a hero of the Enlightenment. You could celebrate his
birthday on January 15 along with Martin Luther King, Jr.'s.
This inspiring quote has been attributed to Meslier, Voltaire,
and Diderot, but I have not traced it to a primary source:
Men will never be free until the last king is strangled
with the entrails of the last priest.
25 December 2006
Michel Onfray: Atheism & Philosophy for the
Onfray, Michel. Atheist
Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam;
translated from the French by Jeremy Leggatt. New York: Arcade Pub.,
distributed by Hackette Book Group, 2007.
Wishful Fantasies and Visions of the Future in Contemporary Art,
by Wilma Sütö, Bas Heijne, Michel Onfray. Rotterdam: Museum
Boijmans van Beuningen, NAi Publishers, 2003.
Michel Onfray is a philosopher, atheist, anarchist, and founder
of the Université
populaire de Caen for the teaching of high-level philosophy
to the masses free of charge. Author of at least 30 books in French,
Onfray's first book translated into English, Atheist Manifesto,
is just being published. He is working on a multi-volume Counter-history
25 December 2006
Adorno vs. Benjamin on Brecht
Theodor Adorno takes a completely opposite position from Walter
Benjamin on Bertolt Brecht:
Adorno on Brecht
Walter Benjamin on Bertolt
Brecht's Lao Tzu
For reference and review:
Brecht on Theatre: Entertainment,
Instruction, Science, Dialectics
. . . and my previous entry on Bertolt
Brecht's Dialectical Aesthetics, with further references.
While I have only sampled a small portion of Brecht's oeuvre, I'm
inclined to agree with Adorno. I've disliked almost every play of
his I've read or seen, including the most prestigious. The exception
is "The Caucasian Chalk Circle"in this case, the
heart of the play, the story within the story, not the Stalinist
shell in which it is unconvincingly framed. In this play there is
a keen sense of irony, of the deviousness necessary to attain some
kind of justice in an impossible situation.
The larger lesson of the Adorno piece is the question of whether
the truth of society is representable, in popularly consumable images
and narratives. Remember that Brecht addressed this question and
posited his dialectical theater as a remedy. Adorno claims that
I've been wrestling with this problem since sometime in the '90s,
using Hegel's "end of art" thesis as a point of reference.
The one area of culture I saw as usable was comedy, which was improving
while everything else was degenerating, and which is the most suitable
form for playing off appearance against reality.
But I was also aware of the increasing levelling of the comedic
effect by the culture of cynicism, codified as cynical
reason by Peter Sloterdijk: we can't say people know not what
they do, they know and do it anyway. And the younger generation
raised on cynicism, knows things from childhood we baby-boomers
never knew, but guess what, at the end of the day, they're more
stupid and conformist than we ever were, the difference being that
there were more opportunities for them to get laid as teenagers
than I ever had, and they can see twisted shit on TV we could only
find in underground comix. Sitcoms and adult cartoon shows have
evolved to the level of unbridled cynicism and sadism.
Then there is the political satire of upper middle class liberalism.
Anyone who thinks that Al Franken, Jon Stewart, or Colbert means
anything except as a device for blue state middle class professionals
to jerk one another off, is sadly deluded.
So these problems that Brecht, Adorno, and others wrestled with
in an earlier time, reappear in a vastly different political, economic,
technological, and media-saturated environment.
15 December 2006
Heine . . . Ellington . . . Zamenhof!
Today is the birthday of L.
L. Zamenhof (15 December 1859 14 April 1917), creator
of Esperanto. Running up to this date, I prepared a number of web
pages in Esperanto.
13 December was the birthdate of the epoch-making German-Jewish poet,
essayist, and satirist Heinrich (n. Chaim Harry) Heine
(13 December 1797 - 17 February 1856). For many years I've been captivated
by a very simple but poignant poem of his and made it the flagship
poem for my web site:
Heinrich Heine: Ein Fichtenbaum
steht einsam (The Lonely Fir Tree), with links
I find a natural complement to Heine's poem in a program note from
Duke Ellington's 1965 Sacred Concert:
Duke Ellington Communicates
To me, these two pieces are symbiotic, distilling the essence of
the poignancy, aspiration, despair, and triumph of the human condition.
So, on Heine's birthday, I translated Ellington into Esperanto,
probably a first for Esperanto. Ellington, I think, would appreciate
this. According to Wynton Marsalis, Ellington wrote more compositions
dedicated to more locales in the world than any composer in history.
An ambassador for the universal aspirations of the human spirit,
Ellington's spirit was kindred to the creative geniuses of another
oppressed people who would not be confinedinstructing us in
the essential human condition, beyond category.
11 December 2006
The Dead End of African Philosophy: Which Way
Scattered in my various writings I've claimed that African Philosophy
is less than the sum of its parts. There are individual studies
of considerable interest, but as a collective intellectual tradition,
the field is bankrupt. By now there must be dozens of readers in
African Philosophy in English alone, all of them overlapping considerably
and repeating the same tiresome themes. Even those who reject the
notion of a philosophy categorically African (ethnophilosophical)
in contentan essentially obscurantist ideological projectare
caught within a tedious identity crisis which has long outlived
I am reading and will soon review this book:
Asouzu, Innocent I. The
Method and Principles of Complementary Reflection in and beyond
African Philosophy. Münster: LIT Verlag, 2005. (Studies
in African Philosophy; v. 4)
Souzu begins with a salutary conception of philosophy as universalistic
and self-critical in spirit, also striving if never quite succeeding
in rising above the provincialism of the societies and the individuals
who generate it. While his conception of complementaritywhich
I'll discuss at length at a later timehas its moments, its
not that big or conceptually deep a concept to serve as a comprehensive
basis for a new philosophy; at best it articulates a normative principle
of openness to the best intuitive strivings towards betterment of
our common humanity. There appears to be a clerical connection,
and later on in this 533-page work, an acceptance of religion and
rejection of materialism, which makes me wonder where Asouzu got
a name like "Innocent." One can only wonder what these
demented European missionaries have wrought in Africa.
To acquire a more compact account of Asouzu's preoccupations, you
can consult his essay online:
and African Metaphysics: A Search for Direction (Paper presented
at the 20th World Congress of Philosophy, Boston, 10-16 August 1998)
Abstract: If one takes
the African situation as a case study, one finds that serious
efforts are made for the sake of scientific progress and exploration.
However, the results attained are not comparable to the energy
expended. Lack of progress is often attributed to faulty policy
formation and execution on the part of African leaders and governments.
This essay attempts to shed light on the source of this problem.
The heuristic principle I follow holds that the metaphysical preconditioning
of consciousness leads us to approach sensory data in particular
ways and, furthermore, influences both our formulation of problems
and possible solutions. I note the lapses in African metaphysics
and sketch an alternate metaphysics which I hope will inaugurate
a new African system of thought.
Metaphysics has two modelsscience-oriented and mythological.
The mythological model dominates in Africa and is justified by various
African theologians and philosophers, on what appear to me to be
spurious mystical and communitarian grounds. Asouzu acknowledges
shortcomings of mythological metaphysics, but finds significant
ethical content in the notion of living in harmony with the world,
not recognizing that thisespecially the conflation of the
natural/metaphysical and social orderis the very essence of
reactionary ideology. To his credit, though, he recognizes the inadequacy
of occult thinking and the consequences of the paucity of scientific
thinking, and indict's Africa's backwardness.
The question then tackled is the role of metaphysics.
The metaphysical preconditioning
of our consciousness disposes us to approaching the data of our
remote and immediate world in peculiar ways and even influences
our formulation of problems and problem solving methods and techniques.
Such metaphysical preconditionings are archetypes taken for granted
and are the conditions of possibility of meaningful community
life. It is important to highlight that although they precondition
us, they do not always offer the best methods and techniques of
approaching issues. They could subjectively offer correct solutions
to problems. In so far as they dogmatically dominate our consciousness
their engaging us in persistently doing the "wrong"
thing in good faith could be resistant to transformation or change.
Metaphysical preconditioning makes a lot of difference with regard
to theoretical and practical formulations of questions and is
as such a very crucial factor in determining the rate of changes
within a society - technologically or otherwise. A metaphysics
grounded in myths and systematically or otherwise unfolded as
such is very likely to raise questions and answers founded in
myths. But the question is to what extent such answers are relevant
to tackling, adequately issues that deserve attention. Surely
not every answer regarded as adequate is in the true sense of
the word so, even if it turns out to serve a missing link of reality
within a given historical context. Metaphysically speaking anything
that exists serves a missing link of reality. (7) In this capacity
any answer that can be given within any historical context has
something to contribute to determining the ultimate nature of
reality. It is however one thing for a thing to serve a missing
link of reality and another thing for it be identified as the
very missing link of reality being sought at a given historical
Asouzu calls for metaphysical self-criticism. He advocates a scientific
temper. What a non-mythological metaphysics should look like eludes
me, but here is his conclusion:
In this regard it is important
to state that the level of development within a given system is
relative to the level of commitment brought by a strong proportion
of those who have the insight towards the necessary conditions
on which such a system is founded. Such necessary conditions transcend
the contractual bonds existing among members of the community,
they are founded on compelling imperatives ingrained in the notion
of these bonds themselves. Wherever such compelling imperatives
are not consciously and explicitly relevant in the actions of
people, the system tends to be muddled up in confusion, disorientation
and stagnation. The attempt at realising the most fundamental
and compelling spirit that keeps history in place is something
metaphysical. In the face of much confusion within the African
socio economic and scientific arena one wonders the level at which
this compelling imperative is present. This imperative is basic
to the spirit of all forms of progress and exploration in religion,
economics, science, technology etc.
See also my review essays:
11 December 2006
The Tao of Brecht
Tatlow, Antony. Peasant
Dialectics: Reflections on Brecht's Sketch of a Dilemma.
The essay opens with a passage from the Tao Te Ching, ch.
78: "In the world there is nothing so submissive and weak as
water. Yet for attacking that which is hard and strong nothing can
surpass it." This is the springboard for Tatlow's treatment
of Taoism as the peasant dialectics of passive resistance, that
endures but in the long run wins while pursuing pure survivalism.
"In rejecting the 'virtues' required of them in a feudal society,
the Taoists here align their concept of social cohesion with the
direction of natural process." Tatlow is aware of the charge
of reactionary nostalgia for agrarian peasant society. He also distinguishes
between different Marxist approaches, between Marx's anti-peasant
orientation and Mao's peasant orientation with a millenia-old intellectual
tradition behind it. Brecht, unlike Adorno, was aware of this Chinese
tradition, and made political use of it. Brecht made a much different
use of Asian philosophies than other Europeans in search of eternal
spiritual values as an escape from Western alienation (Kablund,
Hesse). Brecht studied Mo Tzu's writings and used them as a cover
for his own anti-fascist (and according to Tatlow, anti-Stalinist)
wirting, e.g. in Me-ti, The Book of Experiences. Brecht criticizes
the politics of Europe under the guise of Chinese parables, using
the Taoist concept of wu wei (to do without doing).
While non-contention or Tolstoyanism is acceptable from a Marxist
standpoint, but for Brecht the Taoist critique of "virtue"
expresses a peasant dialectics skeptical of an oppressive social
order. This can be seen in Mother Courage, in Schweyk
in the Second World War, and in:
of the Origin of the Book Tao-Te-Ching on Lao-Tsu's Road into
And now we come to the crux of Brecht's historic problem:
What interests us in the context
of the present discussion is the manner with which Brecht fuses
the strategy of survival and an image of process with its connotation
of naturality. And here we reach the center of our problem. We
can understand Brecht's texts as specific signals in a particular
historical context, as psychological weapons, sources of comfort
and encouragement at moments of great weakness and frustration.
Or we may say that they represent perhaps a strategically limited
and ultimately inefficacious peasant dialectic which no serious
Marxist could ever think of applying to modem problems. Or we
can say that they illustrate Utopian hope, open to similar objections.
Or we can consider whether there is not contained in such a dialectic
a core of valuable experience which may offer something more substantial
than a sense of nostalgia for an agrarian past or an inaccessible
Tatlow sees signs of changes in contemporary sensibility, in a
rebellion against "mechanical materialism" and with ecological
concerns, casting around for a new philosophical orientation, which
he dubs radical organicism, which need not imply the political
conservatism with which it is allied in the West but not always
in Chinese tradition. Instead, it is anti-hierarchical. Joseph Needham
Tatlow is dead wrong here, and, with what seems to be an implicit
endorsement of Mao, downright disgusting. His objectionable conclusions
notwithstanding, his treatment of peasant dialectics and Brecht's
alternative appropriation of Eastern philosophy remains intriguing.
I'm definitely putting Tatlow's book on my reading list:
Tatlow, Antony. The Mask of Evil: Brecht's Response to the Poetry,
Theatre and Thought of China and Japan: A Comparative and Critical
Evaluation. Bern; Las Vegas: P. Lang, 1977. (Literaturwissenschaften;
Bd. 12. Variant Series: European university papers: Series 18, Comparative
literature; v. 12)
This book may be of interest also:
Berg-Pan, Renata. Bertolt Brecht and China. Bonn: Bouvier,
1979. (Studien zur Germanistik, Anglistik und Komparatistik ; Bd.
I can't find any other mention of this play but here:
Way (Brecht between Taoism and Marxism) Adapted and Directed
Murdoch Undercroft Theatre, 1979.
Note this interesting essay on Waltern Benjamin, the flaneur, and
Western appropriations of non-Western cultures:
Tzu and the Apaches by Ioan Davies. July 1997.
Historical understanding is of necessity a mediation between subject
and object, which mandates self-consciousness of this relation.
Benjamin's ultimate rejection
of Judaism, Marxism and conventional liberal practices and approaches,
as well as Adorno's Negative Dialectics was surely based on this
sensibility that, if we are to survive in any meaningful way as
political, social and cultural beings in a world which is becoming
increasingly international, we have to construct a language which
tries to make sense of the appropriation of the experiences of
others through time and down to the present. If, as Rob Sheilds
argues, "Flaneurie is the psychotic appropriation of space
and time," the alienation-effect in Brecht's plays was an
attempt at providing a code by which we can crack the meaning
over space and time.
Benjamin's interpretation of Brecht's poem on Lao Tzu is summarized.
Benjamin, Walter. (trans. Anna Bostock, Introd. Stanley Mitchell)
Understanding Brecht. London: New Left Books, 1973.
Dumain, Ralph. Taoism & the Tao
of Bourgeois Philosophy (review of J. J. Clarke, The Tao
of the West). 23 May 2005.
Occultism, Eastern Mysticism, Fascism,
& Countercultures: Selected Bibliography
[> Bertolt Brecht's
[> Chinese Philosophy
in the West: Globalization Gone Bad (1)]
10 December 2006
Masturbate for Peace
Let there be peace on earth
and let it begin with me . . .
What we sang in grade school
Intercourse with human beings seduces one
If you have a hand free, you might consider signing up to Masturbate
for Peace. There is no peace on earth, no goodwill toward men,
so find peace within and squirt it into the world. Tis the
Season, so however you handle the Winter Solstice, fantasize about
these words of wisdom and act with erectitude. War is shit, rub
your clit; peace is spiffy, stroke your stiffy; cream your khakis,
6 December 2006
Two Reviews: Secularism & Science, Subject
Two book reviews by R. Dumain (me!) have just been published:
science and the Right
[Review: Nanda, Meera. The
Wrongs of the Religious Right: Reflections on Science, Secularism
and Hindutva. Gurgaon (Haryana), India: Three Essays Collective,
July 2005. 118 pp. ISBN paper 81-88789-30-5.],
Frontline [India], Volume 23, Issue 24, Dec. 02-15, 2006.
See also Meera Nanda Online.
Book Review: Georg Lukács,
A Defence of History and Class Consciousness: Tailism and the
Society, and Thought, vol. 19, no. 1, 2006, pp. 109-114.
At first glance, the subject matters and approaches of these books
could not be more disparate. Lukács' Hegelian-inflected Marxism
has characteristically been seen in conflict with the natural sciences.
This book, however, gives us a different perspective. Lukács'
focus on the subject-object relation embodies a concern over praxis
when the natural-scientific perspective is imported into sociopolitical
analysis. Lukács' actual views on science herein are obscure
and require further scrutiny.
In the year since I wrote my review of Nanda's book, I've come
to appreciate certain statements that did not resonate with me at
the time. She tends to rank Hindu ideology as more reactionary and
essentially inegalitarian and chauvinistic than the ideologies related
to the monotheistic religions that issued from the Middle East.
After more exposure to the history of Indian mysticism, religion,
and social practices (including the fascistic proclivities of the
20th century) and once again to the pernicious New Age thought of
the West, I can see more clearly what she was getting at.
[> Swami Agehananda
6 December 2006
Putting Descartes Before the Horse
Isn't it interesting which images and memories stick in your memory
a whole lifetime, regardless of their relative importance? I read
and collected Mad Magazine in my childhood and into my teen
years. Mad, like everything else in American society, had
to adapt to the fever-pitched politicization of American society
in the late '60s, attempting to carry on its mainstream liberalism
under radically altered conditions.
By the mid-'70s, Mad was seen as a dinosaur by the younger
and hipper elements of society, as expressed in a satire of Mad
in the humor magazine National Lampoon. I remember only two
details from the National Lampoon piece. One is a validation
of the original Mad comic book under Harvey Kurtzman, which
was displaced in the mid-'50s by the format we know today. The other
is a vicious send-up of Mad cartoonist Dave Berg. Berg attempts
to mediate between a militant radical and a rabid right-winger,
pleading, "Can't you two find some common ground and agree
on something?" Whereupon the other two simultaneously punch
Berg in the gut and exclaim, "Wishy-washy liberal fink!"
Recently, while researching Berg, I came across this revealing
How MAD's Dave
Berg and Roger Kaputnik Introduced Me To Post-Modernity by
There are a number of insights in this article that I wished I
had acquired at an earlier age.
Berg (cartoonist) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
When I was an avid Mad reader, I had yet to undergo the
subsequent stages of development registered by National Lampoon
and Terre Thaemlitz. Even then Dave Berg was a bit extreme in his
old-fashioned ways. I actually attended a talk by him, in which
he propounded solutions to all the problems of the world, of which
I remember only that he recommended pouring money into taking care
of the Palestinian Arabs. I had him sign one of his paperbacks,
and I recall him referring to his young son as a bum,
apparently because the lad's hair had grown beyond the brush-cut
stage (he looked nowhere near like a hippie).
Berg later descended into the pit of philistinism with his book
My Friend God.
While I still remember a smattering of his comic strips ("The
Lighter Side of . . . " in Mad Magazine and "MAD's
Dave Berg Looks at . . . " paperbacks), there's one that keeps
popping up in my mind at relevant moments, though I hadn't actually
seen it for three and a half decades until finally hunting it down
Before the Horse"
Perhaps Berg is depicting a common adolescent experience?
At the age of 14 or 15 I struggled with the problem of Cartesian
doubt. I think I read Descartes' Discourse on the Method
when I was 15. I remember my exasperation in debating skepticism
with a friend, who was unrelenting in circumventing my efforts to
At some point I grew tired of this philosophical dilemma
and retired to resume my favorite pastime while fantasizing about
Many years later I concluded that skepticism (and
existentialism, though not directly related) is a necessary adolescent
stage that one should go through quickly and then outgrow. At the
age of 18 I was deeply into David
Hume and never touched him again (not until the last month or
so). Whatever else you can say about Dave Berg, he composed an unforgettable
comic strip that epitomizes teenage metaphysical angst.
We're just a biological speculation, sittin'
and we don't know what we're vibratin' about.