Archive for February, 2010

links for 2010-02-28
February 28, 2010

Lindsey Graham Knows What Really Matters
February 28, 2010

The angle that anchors Tom Friedman’s latest column is profoundly weird. Just check out this lede:

It is early evening on Capitol Hill, and I am sitting with Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican, who, along with John Kerry and Joe Lieberman, is trying to craft a new energy bill — one that could actually win 60 votes. What is interesting about Graham is that he has been willing — courageously in my view — to depart from the prevailing G.O.P. consensus that the only energy policy we need is “drill, baby, drill.”

What brought you around, I ask? Graham’s short answer: politics, jobs and legacy.

Anyone notice what’s missing there? Or think it’s a little nuts that Graham feels comfortable stating upfront that he’s pushing climate change legislation largely because he thinks it’ll be good for him and his party?

Okay, so it’s not really news to anyone that both Friedman and Graham are startlingly cynical in that curious, blinkered, DC cocktail party circuit kind of way. And while I spend as much time as anyone lamenting the omnipresence of that sort of mentality, I think it’s important to look on the bright side here. Graham sees a political advantage in positioning himself as the Climate Change Republican. Maybe others will follow.

China Miéville on J.G. Ballard
February 27, 2010

It’s been said so many times before, but it deserves to be said again:

Edric is clearly no fool, and rather than simply dismissing his peculiar and misplaced praise, we should consider it in light of his remarks about genre. He goes on to say that to regard Ballard’s work “purely as science fiction is to misunderstand completely what [Ballard] has accomplished over half a century.” This coolness toward the genre echoes Martin Amis’s assurance, in the introduction to this volume, that science fiction “couldn’t hold” Ballard. One is also reminded of the way Margaret Atwood packaged her novel Oryx and Crake in 2003: choosing as its epigraph Jonathan Swift’s remark in Gulliver’s Travels that “my principal design was to inform you, and not to amuse you,” while simultaneously distinguishing her work from science fiction (SF) during her publicity tour on the grounds that SF is about “talking squids in outer space.” It appears that Swift and squid are antipodes. Since literary fiction, you see, has something to say about the real world, ipso facto it cannot be SF. And though there are many ways a piece of nonrealist fiction can be “about” the real world, when it is set in the future, one of the simplest and most obvious interpretations is to perceive it relatively directly as an aspiration or warning. Underlying the unhelpful sense of Ballard as a prophet, let alone an aspirational one, then, is an ongoing campaign to rescue him from genre–from those talking squids in outer space. (Atwood’s phrase has been exuberantly picked up by SF readers and writers, of course: there are now many websites dedicated to celebrating fictional cephalopod cosmonauts.)

The campaign, and the embedded myopia about and antipathy toward genre, are foolish. Anyone who works in SF has had this argument multiple times, and has become tedious in the process. It would be nice if we could all just shut up about this. Clearly the claim that SF has nothing meaningful to say and that therefore meaningful fiction cannot be SF is a tautology predicated on a question-begging and evasive conception of genre as canard. Clearly Ballard was, among various things, an SF writer. Though on occasion he was slightly more equivocal about it, he was quoted after his death on the BBC’s The Last Word as having said, “I’ve always insisted that I certainly was a science fiction writer and very proud of it.” Authorial intention isn’t everything, but it certainly counts for something. To say that Ballard couldn’t have been a science fiction writer because one admires his fiction so much is absurd. Clearly anyone who nonetheless insists on this is speaking not from analysis but from an uninvestigated generic prejudice. They, not Ballard, are hostages of those squids. These should be commonplaces.

The whole article is interesting, but I feel like I would have gotten a lot more out of it had I ever actually read any J.G. Ballard. And yeah, I know that’s something I should really get on, especially given twin obsessions with transcendent genre fiction (which is a stupid label, but I think you know what I’m talking about) and paranoid literature.

Any Ballard fans got recommendations on where to start?

links for 2010-02-26
February 26, 2010

Friday Afternoon Music Video: Cake’s “Never There”
February 26, 2010

I humbly submit that based on the lyrical content, slinky baseline and rap breakdown, this could be called Cake’s version of a pop diva single. The main difference being that I actually enjoy this quite a bit, and it’s difficult to imagine Britney in a music video that pays homage to Blood Simple.

A Heartbreaking Work of Accidental Genius
February 26, 2010

I am unreasonably excited for tonight’s NYU Local field trip to a screening of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room. Ever since I first saw the movie this summer–well, actually for several months before I saw it–I’ve been nursing a growing obsession. Because while this might not be the worst movie ever made (I maintain that the throne still belongs to Robo Vampire), it could very well be the best worst movie ever made.

When I try to describe its appeal to others, I tend to throw around the phrase “accidental genius” a lot. Of course, that’s a misnomer; isn’t all genius accidental? The difference is that in this case, the director/writer/producer/star seems to think his baby is absolutely brilliant for reasons that not only diverge, but run completely contrary to why it’s so good. He thinks he’s making some grand statement about humanity, but what makes this movie so fascinating, and so worth rewatching, is how much he is really revealing to us about his own crazed psyche.

So my advice to first-time viewers of The Room is this: don’t just take it at face value. Watch it as a meta-film, where the main character is actually Tommy Wiseau. If you do that, you’re basically watching a completely different movie; instead of a shitty, unintentionally funny drama, it becomes a genius dark comedy about a poor, deluded, tormented soul who thinks he’s making the next Citizen Kane.

If this were all some elaborate piece of performance art, I think it would be hailed as one of the greatest cult comedies of our time. But the fact that this is an actual train wreck only makes it more hypnotic, and its appeal even more enduring.

links for 2010-02-25
February 25, 2010

Language, Truth, Logic and God
February 25, 2010

I’m taking a break from writing an essay on an argument put forth in Alfred Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic. It’s an intriguing book, not only because of how it deals with metaethics (the subject of my essay) but also metaphysics and religion.

Here’s a condensed version of what I think is one of Ayer’s more compelling arguments:

1. The truth value of any statement is determined by its verifiability. For example, the statement “I am sitting down” has a positive or negative truth value because you can easily look at me and check.

2. Metaphysical claims are inherently unverifiable. For example, if you’re having an argument about Cartesian dualism, you can’t prove or disprove the existence of a soul by directly observing it.

3. Because metaphysical claims are inherently unverifiable, they have no truth content.

4. Metaphysical claims are sort of meaningless.

It’s something I’ve always suspected–and that always sort of bugged me when I was taking classes on metaphysics. But I’ve never heard this argument put so eloquently by a distinguished philosopher.

It gets even more interesting when he applies this argument to the existence of God. God, after all, is a metaphysical entity. The point Ayer makes is that when people point to certain physical phenomena as evidence in favor of God, that only really has a definite truth value if your definition of “God” is basically “the manifestation of these physical phenomena.” And nobody who believes in God believes that; they believe in a metaphysical consciousness causing those phenomena.

So the question is: If I subscribe to Ayer’s view–which I’m not totally sold on yet, but seems pretty convincing–am I really an atheist? Can an atheist be someone who, when asked if God exists, responds, “That question doesn’t make any sense?”

Where all of this starts to break down is where Ayer discusses ethics. He’s an emotivist, and while that view does, at first blush, seem fairly compelling, it has some pretty weird/disturbing implications; the strangest of which is perhaps the possibility that the sentence, “If murder is wrong, then you ought not to murder,” is actually completely incoherent.

links for 2010-02-24
February 24, 2010

Ach, de Liebertarianism!
February 24, 2010

In general, you could say I’m pretty deeply disheartened by the level of political discourse on the NYU campus, what with the loudest voice on the left being Take Back NYU! and the loudest voice on the right being the Ann Coulter/Michelle Malkin-loving College Republicans. But I do enjoy grappling with the libertarians because, Ayn Rand citations aside, a lot of them are actually pretty informed and thoughtful. Plus, unlike either of the aforementioned parties, they appreciate good-faith debate.

Which is why I decided to needle them a little bit with this post; I knew we’d get some pretty good discussion out of it in the comments. And so far, I think we have.

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