Friday, October 21, 2016

On Genius

Recently in my Technology and Society course, we watched The Imitation Game, so the students would know something about this guy who made this thing called the "Turing Test" that I keep talking about.  The film was a stock Hollywood bio-pic with appropriately placed musical swells, with emphasis on finding adult problems in childhood traumas, and the idea of the solitary, misunderstood genius.

So what is genius?  Well as with most ideas, there's a history that's pretty interesting.  Here's the upshot.  To the Greeks one was possessed by genius.  To us, a person just plain old is a genius.  So what's the difference and does it matter?  As I see it, the idea that one is possessed by genius means that anyone appropriately sensitive could be possessed by a moment where they feel taken over by a force outside themselves.  Sometimes we call these "epiphanies" and sometimes they are attributed to something called a "muse."

The example that sticks out to me is the story of Archimedes sitting in the bathtub.  If anyone is unfamiliar the legend goes like this: The king does not know whether his crown is real gold or not and he tasks Archimedes with finding out, except Archimedes doesn't know how.  So after an unproductive day, Archimedes, exhausted, takes a bath. He notices that when he sits down in the bath, the water rises: displacement. "Eureka," he shouts, running naked around town realizing he has solved the puzzle.  In this example, Archimedes isn't walking around just being a genius all the time; rather, he was overtaken in a moment of genius and saw a solution that was previously unseeable.

Genius, at least as we use the term, seems to imply someone who is singularly focused: one learns that David Lynch ate lunch everyday at Bob's Big Boy because he just couldn't be bothered to waste any time thinking about what to eat for lunch.  All he could think about was creating Blue Velvet, Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive etc.  Or Cezanne paints the same mountain over and over and over because he cannot capture the essence of the mountain - and in doing so he becomes so obsessed that he can't find time to clean up after his pet bird.  We have a genius painter in a room full of bird shit. This fits the stereotype perfectly.  Or the movie The Devil and Daniel Johnston where we see a musician who is not talented in any traditional sense write hundreds of love songs about one girl who couldn't love him back.  While watching that film I remember feeling so conflicted about whether I was seeing someone who was possessed by genius or someone who was just awful and could not accept the fact.

It seems that we don't call someone a genius who is a generalist.  But why?  Could someone write the most brilliant Intro to Philosophy book or what about someone who was just an amazing film critic because they were incredibly sensitive to film, not because they had seen hundreds of films or because they could direct a film. That is to say, could someone be a genius as an amateur?  Or to circle back, is genius something that someone actually is?

I can't imagine someone just walking around being a genius all day.  What would that look like?  Oh my god did you see the way Bob just turned right on red? Fucking brilliant?  Oh wow - did you see how he ate that tuna salad? Impeccable! Have you seen him urinate!

So that leaves the concept that we can have moments of genius - certainly a more democratic idea, but wait a minute - genius can't be democratic, right?  Well I guess this is what I think: if one is sensitive, thoughtful, and quiet one can have moments of insight that can reconfigure the world. Turing supposes that only a machine can defeat a machine; Einstein supposed space-time instead of space and time,  Derrida presents a paper at Johns Hopkins and gives the world Deconstruction; Jimmy Hendrix places the Vietnam War inside of the National Anthem.  These moments changed what came before - rendering much irrelevant, making things that weren't relevant more relevant - they made reality taste differently, feel differently, and we're all better for it - I hope.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Monodology

I recently reread Leibniz's "Monodology." Most people don't know much about Leibniz - even philosophy majors like me.  Leibniz was always taught as a sort of bridge getting from Descartes to Hume and ultimately to Kant.  At least in my courses he wasn't considered someone to take seriously.  I knew him most through the parody deployed by Voltaire in Candide.  Leibniz once said that this must be the best of all possible worlds because if God could have made it better, he would have made it better.  Voltaire basically said "Then God fucked up" but with more and different words.  Leibniz also argues that God must exist because it's possible that God does exist and since it is a God that grants possibilities in the first place God must be the cause of his own possibility.  That sounds crazy, but it's also kind of awesome.  And here's why.

As a philosophy major, you read for truth.  You establish truth by creating a systematic study of what a thinker says.  You do this by invoking a language with words like "necessary" and "sufficient" and "a priori" and " a posteriori," "subjective" and "objective," and so forth.  You invoke logical fallacies and ultimately you prove things.  And well, approached this way, Liebniz is caught in what is called "circular reasoning" (Since God is possible, he must exist and he must have caused himself.)  After you establish this, you can dismiss a thinker and move on to the next.  To do this there's one thing you actually never need to do: Read Leibniz.  All of these critiques can be accomplished quickly and simply in an Intro to Philosophy Book, taking up about a page and a half.  

So let's do something radical and actually look at the text.  Here's a sentence that gets me excited, "But he (M. Bayle in an attempt to critique Liebniz's belief in a 'universal harmony.') was unable to bring forward any reason why this universal harmony, which means that every substance exactly expresses every other through the relationships it has with them, was impossible."  How does a substance have a relationship with all other substances.  Leibniz is one of two people that invented Calculus (Newton).  They both made their breakthroughs independently - which seems like such a calculusy thing to do.  So Leibniz sees objects as a kind of bounded infinity.

Okay - let's try for an example.  When I look at my guitar, I see not only my guitar, but I can also see the effects of the craftsman that worked on it.  Now of course he brings with him another multiplicity of connections to other things and so on.  I can also see my guitar and notice how it is different from a bass, for example.  If I look long enough the history of music seems caught up in this one piece of wood and string.  For Leibniz the world folds itself back into objects in a multiplicity of ways.  The trick, of course, is to not think one "reading" of the guitar is the final reading.  However - and this is what is so difficult to truly grasp - it does not follow that the guitar means whatever you think it means.  It's not absolutely infinite - it's a bounded infinity.  It is the infinity of calculus.

Of course there's also the butterfly effect argument that everything, no matter how small, has effects on everything else.  In this way too all things are folded back into other things.  All becomes cause and effect.  

What I most admire about Leibniz is the audacity of the project: I'm going to create a cosmology that is 90 propositions long and takes about an hour to read?!  There's something to be said about brevity. I mean it takes a long time to read most people's history of everything (Bible, quantum theory). Leibniz does it in an afternoon.

The trick - well that's not the right word exactly - is to learn to actually read instead of falling into a categorical judgment:  this is wrong because God doesn't exist, for example.  That reading dismisses the beauty of the rest of Leibniz's thought.  I mean everything is folded into everything - everything is pregnant with a bounded infinity.  That's some seriously poetic shit: we are all progenitors of the muck of the world - that we are simultaneously caught up in and constituted by.  

Friday, October 14, 2016

Back at it

It's been a while.  About 3 years.  I thought I'd try to say interesting things.

Finding the Beat

Life is rhythm.  At this point in my life, I've been a musician for longer than I haven't been.  Most of that time was devoted to learning lots of styles of guitar playing: rock, blues, jazz, classical, country and so forth.  Recently, however, I bought a drum set.

It didn't take long before it was obvious that the drums were unique in that they are the only instrument I've ever played where being awful was kind of fun.  You could sort of chalk it up to exercise or releasing stress.  But of course, it's never fun to stay bad at anything.  If I can't get good at something,  I usually move on to the next thing.  Life's to short to spend too much time sucking.

So I got better and now I would say I'm not terrible, nor bad, but OK.  I can keep rhythm, a few easy fills and get through a song.  But here's what became interesting to me playing the drums: finding the beat.  Music becomes intensely more metric when a backbeat is added.  The drums don't "fill" in the sound, they reconfigure the sound.  Changing the drumbeat - how much someone is wailing on a snare drum - how far removed from the pocket they are - changes the sound of everything.

Often when I play, I put on music - sometimes singer/songwriter stuff that doesn't have a drum part.  My job then becomes to locate and establish a beat.  So how do you do this? Do you count?  Well, maybe at first, but what happens is that your body can sort of tell what works over what song.  What I mean is if I sit down and listen, I just start to do what fits.  Now, it's not the only thing that would fit. Of course not, but playing was not based around a theoretical understanding of music - of subdivisions or smaller beat patterns with insane sounding names (paradiddles? Really?)

Instead one must learn to find the beat.  

This works not only for music, but it's true for life in general.  We all move to our own unique rhythms.  Sometimes we try to take on the rhythms of others.  Sometimes it works - "I really like to hang out with X because they bring out another side of my personality."  This is nice when two people have complimentary rhythms.  Somehow the two people become more than the sum of their parts - their rhythms marble together, sometimes we give ourselves over to their rhythm. Other times, it's just clear that our rhythm will not work with another's.  I don't like to walk with people who walk fast. It changes my rhythm and I have to take in the world at a speed I do not enjoy.  I'm a stroller.  I like to go slowly.

So it goes.  

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Late Night Thoughts On Economics

The strangest thing about being liberal in the South is that people who disagree with you in terms of taxes and government spending do not actually gain anything fiscally from their disagreement.

So why do people who, say, work for the state or are lower middle-class to working poor, but religious in a usually evangelical way dislike liberal economic policies?

There have been numerous books and studies and I guess it'd be more effective to just say read "What's the Matter with Kansas," or my personal favorite "Deer Hunting with Jesus," but I know most people who disagree with my position wouldn't do that.  Which to be fair, I'm probably not going to read a 70 page monologue by Ayn Rand.  (Though I did read Anthem and a bunch of pages from one of her Objectivist books)

Okay so here goes: what sustains us as a people - not just us, any people - is narrative.  And the conservative narrative is much more pleasant.  That narrative suggests that freeloaders get in the way, unskilled, lazy people are the problem with wages, and if you can't get a job, it's because either 1) you don't want a job or 2) you've fucked up so bad in the past that you can't be surprised that nobody wants to hire you.

The beauty of that narrative is that it eliminates any systemic criticism.  That is to say, if you're screwed, it's because you screwed yourself.  We will call this the "Masterbation theory."

Okay and why do these people hate liberal ideas of, say, systemic racism?  Well to their mindset not only does it excuse personal failure (and let's be honest, sometimes it's used that way) it suggests that the very concept of "America" as they understand it is flawed.

And but so... What exactly is the liberal argument?

This is the problem.  It really hasn't been well articulated. The Left needs a better narrative.  Usually it's reactionary - "Well I mean he would have gotten a promotion but the system is racist, or she should have gotten promoted by the system is sexist." And so forth.  And while I personally agree that both of these happen very, very often, it's a negative critique, i.e., it suggests what's wrong with the system in place; it doesn't suggest an alternative.  (I'm being unfair to liberals here, but it's for a larger point)

So.... Liberals, and by liberal I personally mean people who believe that Capitalism should attempt to grant opportunities across the board in hopes of producing a better citizenry; people who believe that we have to have certain regulations in place to make sure that people are given similar opportunities to access the "American Dream" as dreamy as it probably is; people who believe that Corporations are not excluded from the same ethical framework we would apply to people; people who believe that difference is not simply a "Political Correct" notion, but a notion that allows a democracy to be fucking awesome and so forth, must give a positive idea of why their values are valuable.  We have to embrace statements like "Of course I'm liberal, why wouldn't anybody be?" As opposed to "Well I mean I'm liberal, but I'm not like a crazy person or anything."

Essentially, what I see is that poles are suggesting the population is moving left of both parties while the parties are moving right because of an obvious income imbalance between the rich and the poor, i.e., people have no money these days compared to the wealthy who run the planet.  And politicians and policy makers obviously want their jobs to continue. So, the wealthy control legislation.  This, of course, is the pickle.

I would personally be for using the word "sycophant" more often.  Often I see people who just want to be rich - it's a sort of wet-dream-republicanism.  Let's call them out on that.  I'd also suggest pointing out that the exact dichotomy I'm painting is too simple.  I always claim the term "Left" but never "Democrat."  As far as I can tell Democrats are basically just Republican Light who talk nicer in terms of Social Issues but rarely do much to better social standings. 

And but so, I don't know how to end this.  I'm frustrated and often left feeling helpless.  But I think most people I know, as evidenced by strong support for Gay Marriage, which I know via Facebook, are far more open than the television suggests.  I just hope the Left can make a narrative that's both honest and non-reactionary.  More to come.

Monday, January 28, 2013

On Moods

I have realized many days that I have completely stopped (obviously until now) keeping this whole blog thing going.  It's weird - all of a sudden, I just didn't have much to say.  Or, rather, I had stuff to say but nothing felt important/interesting/funny enough to write down.  So today that is what I'm thinking about: that weird phenomenon that happens when all of a sudden we just stop doing something we had previously done religiously - sometimes religion is one of those things. 

For example, there were summers when I was about 16 where my friend Lee and I went fishing everyday - and I mean that damn-near literally.  We were on a first-name basis with local bait and tackle shop owners, we had complex and sometimes misguided theories of how to catch what.  (We were particularly bad at catching catfish and also getting catfish back in the water when we were actually successful)  Then one day - I don't remember when - I just lost interest in it.  There's a whole slew of current friends that would be surprised that I ever cared so much about fishing. 

I guess my point is that moods come over us, we get swept up, and then sometimes we move on.  Sometimes it comes full circle - sometimes you're just finished with whatever you had gotten caught up with in the first place.  I'm thinking of Chris Cooper's character in Adaptation explaining that he loves the ocean but no longer sets foot in the ocean and explaining: "That's how much fuck fish."

So hopefully today will begin a new period of strange musings.  Even as I'm typing now, I can feel the loss of rhythm I had accumulated over about a year of pretty solid postings.  Well, all that being said.  Cheers to everyone who has stuck around reading this thing. 

Monday, May 14, 2012

Joy and Pleasure

Reading Facebook posts tonight and I'm struck, again, by the wave of posters with captions.  Who started this shit and can we make it stop?  Probably not.

Well, okay.  Here's what I'm noticing.  At least from my Facebook friends, most of the posts are bitter, mean, sarcastic, devoid of joy and boring.  Most of them suggest that our current political situation sucks.  Now, to be fair, the one's that say that opposite are equally annoying.

Now, what annoys me - the cause for this post - isn't that I agree or disagree with any of them in particular.  It's the utter lack of joy in so many of the posts.  They seem to want to paint the world as one big pain in the ass - one evil place to live where only politicians get their way.

Okay - so they're kind of right.  The rich do win.  Politicians are bought and constantly lie.  All this is true, but yet I'm left with a sorrow that goes beyond the political situation.  Are people not experiencing joy anymore?  I mean even when we were in huge - literally - World Wars - there was joy in the literature.  I mean read the existentialists carefully.  Kafka is hilarious - Camus is always affirmative.  Beckett - well, okay - I don't know, but fuck it I love the guy.

But when I look at these posts tonight - I don't care about the political side - what I'm sad about is an utter lack of joy.  The world IS.  We need Nietzsche in these times.  Whatever it is - say YES.  Hate politicians - fine - hate the president - fine - but please find some moment for joy and pleasure.  The world gives.  The world is illuminated.  The world is also a totally fucked-up place - but let's not forget the former because of the latter.  (And this is not some statement about "balance."  I mean something far simpler.)

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Jerry McGuire and Truth

So the wonderfully cute kid in Jerry McGuire utters three truths: the human head weighs 8 lbs, bees and dogs smell fear, and my neighbor has three rabbits.

What's interesting about this, to me anyways, is that they are all true but true in really different ways.  The first statement is true by way of average.  Maybe nobody's head has ever weighed 8lbs, but the average of all  human heads is 8 lbs.  And then there's other interesting questions about who's head counts as human.  I would guess that figure does not count infants' heads as heads.  But we get what is meant - the statement works.

The next claim is basically universal.  We assume ALL dogs and bees smell fear.  Of course there are always outliers, but ostensibly they are so small as to be explained - like people who can't see colors.  Though, there's a huge and really interesting assumption about fear being something you can smell.  What a bizarre and extremely cool idea.  I can smell your fear, literally.

Finally, my neighbor has three rabbits.  This is by far my favorite of the three.  Not just because it's the funniest.  Well here's the thing: it's the funniest because it's local.  So the idea, what makes it humorous, is that we think Truth should not be local.  However, this proves the opposite point - Truth is more exact exactly when it's local.  So while my neighbor might not have three rabbits - in fact they don't - they have a litter of loud, hellspawn kids who embrace life in a way that is beautiful despite my dislike for their kind.

So Truth is complicated.

The little kids declarations are the most interesting part of this movie, which has one of my least favorite ideas of love: you complete me.  Disgusting.  I want to date people who are already whole.  It's sweet; it's sentimental.  But I don't agree with it.  However, I love that kid explaining Truth.