Monday, July 28, 2008

The retronarrative of (r)evolution(/evilution)

We don't seem to be able to shake the idea that we live like we read (I blame sacred texts). Debates about evolution are prey to this idolus tribus (human illusion):

"Evolution doesn't, in fact, tend to perfection: it goes with what works and tinkers with it later. [Hence the foibles of] the [human] mind: our meagre reasoning capacity is an afterthought, spatchcocked on to the ancestral systems that have the reins where practical decision-making is concerned. If only our higher mental functions could dominate; alas, the lizard-brain parts have seniority" (Review of Kluge by Gary Marcus and The Drunkard's Walk by Leonard Mlodinow).

Umm. Evolution = accident and no value, i.e. no narrative except in hindsight, thus ≠ design and/or providence/progress, i.e. there is no god in the machine, no font of sacred or secular values, even if it fits our retro narrative.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Neverending Store-ree!

a.k.a. eν οίδα ότι ουδέν οίδα. "I know that I know nothing," says Socrates, according to Plato ("I know nothing," said Sergeant Schultz, meaning the same thing, being as he was a acknowledged Sophist). Thankfully, I too find myself in that position. But what is that nothing that I know?

By a Lacanian twist, the idea of the real, i.e. the Thing itself, springs to mind. But you can't know that. In other words, you can't know the Thing - it is not a thing at all: no-thing (these Continental punsters!). Or what about Heidegger's Nothing, with which we come into contact through the experience of anxiety? I know that feeling; that's what life is about, isn't it (putting aside joy for the moment)? When the world of Fantastica is devastated by the Nothing in the stab in the groin when you conceive a child, or less fatally, in the summons from the IRD or some other tug of your string by the faceless masters.

But seriously, this confession of ignorance is the premise of maieutics: the craft of intellectual midwifery, for want of a better word (from the Greek μαιευτικός [maieutikos]: pertaining to midwifery). The Socratic method is premised on the idea that the truth is latent in every reasonable human being but has to be "given birth" in response to questions or problems ( Or to put it better, on the idea that truth doesn't reside in the entrails - or bowels - of the teacher (only to be read once they're dead - or in their carefully guarded excretions).

Such a confession returns us to the mystery with which Heidegger believes philosophy begins (which he takes from Leibniz): "Why is there something rather than nothing?" (see his essay "What is Metaphysics?," which title is his own sly in-joke: Who knows? I know that I don't. I'm not the Taxman: "Let me tell you how it will be . . ."

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Utility of Storms

Christopher Christian Sturm on "The Utility of Storms" (July 11): The Reflections on the Works of God in Nature and Providence for Every Day of the Year, tr. Adam Clarke (Baltimore, 1822) 322-23.

"We should consider the phenomena of nature so, that the wisdom and goodness of our heavenly Father may be clearly apprehended by our understanding, and make the deepest impression upon our heart: and this duty should appear to us the more indispensable, because it is so much neglected by a multitude of inattentive, ignorant, and ungrateful people. It is true, that God sometimes makes use of natural phenomena to punish the sins of men: but these particular cases do not prove that he does not propose chiefly, and in general, the benefit and welfare of the whole.

Universal nature affords incontestable proofs of this. At present, let us consider a single phenomenon, which is well calculated to convince us of this; and concerning which, we have great need to have our ideas rectified. Are we not, in general, accustomed from our youth to pronounce the words, thunder and lightning, with terror? Such is our injustice, that we never think but on those extremely rare cases, in which tempests have been prejudicial to a very small part of the universe: we shut our eyes against the great advantages which result from them to the whole of the creation. Alas! we should soon change our tone, if God, irritated by our murmuring and ingratitude, were to deprive us of the blessings which thunder and lightning produce. It is true, we are not capable of pointing out all the advantages resulting from them: but the little which we know may suffice to fill our hearts with gratitude toward our great Benefactor."

Hmm. What about Desert Storms—and Shock and Awe? Sounds a little like what Naomi Klein calls the "disaster capitalism" of Milton Friedman and the Chicago School—and the Jaws of Bouche and Hell-he-burnt-on (The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism). Can you hear, can you hear the thunder?

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

William Ellis on an "affecting instance of infanticide"

A thoughtless thought-experiment

From William Ellis, Polynesian Researches, ch. 13 (

"We have long known that the Sandwich Islanders practised infanticide, but had no idea of the extent to which it prevailed, until we had made various inquiries during our present tour. . . . The Society Islanders buried the infants they destroyed among the bushes, at some distance from their houses; but many of the infants in the Sandwich Islands are buried in the houses in which both parents and child had resided together. In the floors, which are frequently of earth or pebbles, a hole is dug, two or three feet deep, into which they put the little infant, placed in a broken calabash, and having a piece of native cloth laid upon its mouth to stop its cries. The hole is then filled up with earth, and the inhuman parents themselves have sometimes joined in treading down the earth upon their own innocent but murdered child."

The principal grounds were apparently:
  1. "to satisfy hunger,"
  2. as a sacrifice to marauding sharks,
  3. out of "idleness" (because a child hinders their nomadic lifestyle or is sickly or cries too much).
Ellis continues his thoughtless thought-experiment: "The bare recital of these acts of cruelty has often filled our minds with horror, while those who have been engaged in the perpetration of them have related all their tragical circumstances in detail with apparent unconcern."

The tragical foibles of casual parents, ae? Who could imagine I would end up thus: interred in a "broken calabash," cries smothered with "native cloth" . . .

Monday, July 7, 2008

Vigilantes or vigilance?

In response to "March organiser demands action" at the Herald (

There has been a strong response from politicians, local and national, to calls for "vigilante" patrols in South Auckland to protect "Asians" from petty crime.

The Herald quotes
Peter Low:

The East Auckland importer said he had vigilantes in training to stop further attacks. Groups of 20 people attend six workshops teaching them martial art skills and how to handle various situations. Women were also being taught how to look after their handbags. He is hoping to have the groups patrolling South Auckland streets within the next few months. If authorities don't allow the vigilante groups, the AAG will consider hiring Triads, Mr Low said.

In fact, the whole brouhaha turns on a linguistic misunderstanding. Low meant to say "vigilance" - not "vigilantes." Just like he meant to say that citizens should "forearm" themselves, rather than "arm" themselves against threats to their person and property.

This became clear in the course of Kathryn Ryan's interview on RNZ's Nine to Noon programme this morning (though Ryan failed to pick it up and press him for a more idiomatic phrase). "Vigilantes" of course presses public buttons more effectively than "vigilance" - which is, in any case, what the police (and poilticians) would have us display in the face of criminals.

For Ryan's interview, see her page at NatRad (