Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Giacometti

So to speak, the big-ticket item now in the NY museum scene is the Giacometti retrospective at the Guggenheim, where it fills the entire building. I took it in yesterday, realizing that I had never quite "gotten" Giacometti. This is odd because one of my favorite college courses - alas never translated into a book - was on the origins of abstraction. 
Once I got home I read an essay by Jean-Paul Sartre, which I found suggestive. Laying emphasis on the prehistoric and tribalist affinities of the sculptor's work, Sartre held that he in effect sought to repeal the whole history of Western sculpture from the Greeks onward, which in his view depicted only corpses. So much for classicism!

In his thin figures G. was not presenting a pared-down image of shrunken humanity, but rather the emergence, in a kind of quest of the absolute, of a new human concept, one that is still tentative. It is a bit like those timed photos of flowers just beginning to open - but human beings in this case,

Certainly at a time when figuration was being abandoned - think Kandinsky and Mondrian - he affirmed ir in his own way. Food for thought.

Monday, June 18, 2018

The Fate of Gay and Lesbian Studies


I have many interests, though probably my most significant publications are in the field of gay and lesbian studies. 
Spoiler alert as this old dog opens a can of worms. Is the field of gay and lesbian studies still vital? in 1980 I and my collaborators sought, as best we could, to lay the foundations in our Encyclopedia of Homosexuality. 
At that time we assumed that the major obstacle to progress would be lingering homophobic sentiment. Alas, in my view the rot began from within, first from the Social Construction trend, which discouraged transhistorical and cross-cultural studies. Queer Theory assimilated us all to a larger category, but the q-term was divisive. Then gender studies devoured everything.

Of course useful studies are still appearing, especially of hitherto neglected aspects of same-sex relationships in Eastern Europe and Asia.  But postmodernism has thoroughly eroded the theoretical foundations, leaving what survives as little more than the smile of the proverbial Cheshire Cat.

The biggest problem these days is the rise of the concept of gender and orientation fluidity. Back in the day we stoutly opposed demands that we "just get over it," accepting the cure in the guise of "therapy." By contrast, we were convinced of the following truth: whether its origins stemmed from nature or nurture, after its consolidation in youth sexual orientation was essentially immutable. Maybe this was always an overstatement, according little attention to bisexuals, for example.  

Still, there remains personally for many of us a basic stability in this realm. Yet now comes the idea that, as one formula trenchantly puts it, sexual orientation is like a suit of clothes - we decide each morning what dress to wear. This idea appeals to some notion of absolute human freedom. But is it realistic?

The upshot is that in terms of identity there are no homosexuals as such - only on occasion same-sex conduct, "as you like it." Hence the pall that in Western nations at least is gradually shrouding these studies. 

Of course individual work is continuing as I. have acknowledged, but the center of gravity has shifted massively. This shift is the point that I think my critics are missing.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Sagas and old Iceland

In my medieval courses I tended to give short shrift to the Vikings as their incursions in Western Europe were so destructive. But there are positive sides as well. I have always liked the art, and now I have gone on to tackle the Icelandic sagas, which I find on the whole to be a pleasant and easy read (in translation of course). 

Strictly speaking these tales are not realistic, but still they tell us something about early Icelandic society, which at first seems a kind of egalitarian, quasi-libertarian paradise. There were no cities in old Iceland, just a network of farms and small holdings. In principle there was no monarch - just the annual meeting of the Althing, in which disputes could be settled. 

Yet there was a dark side as well. There was a lot of violence, based on perceptions that one's honor was violated. One way this could be triggered was to label someone an argr, or passive homosexual. 

The most disturbing feature was the pervasiveness of slavery, the slaves having been obtained via the predatory raids. Slaves did most of the work on the farms. And if they had babies their master did not want, the infants were exposed. So the upshot is that one can have equality for a few if one deprives others of it.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Pound today

Ages ago, when I remarked to my high school English teacher that I was reading Ezra Pound, she pertinently responded: "Wasn't he, well, prejudiced?" Just so, yet Pound refuses to take his place peacefully in the dusty museum of early anglophone modernism. 

Like many others who caught the bug at one time, I continue to ponder him (sic). In different ways, we sense that he is relevant for the present. A recent essay collection, "Ezra Pound in the Present," explores these intimations. 

In summary, the editors single out three main areas of intersection: the excesses of finance capital and how, if at all, they are to be curbed; the renewed importance of China; and the continuing vitality of the American founders, especially Jefferson and Adams. 

The conventional view is that Lord Keynes decisively skewered the amateurish Social Credit theories of Major Douglas. True, but maybe something can be salvaged, since the current liberal remedy of regulation of financial institutions has proved all too easy for capture and dismantling. 

As a longtime admirer of the philosopher, Pound would surely appreciate the formation of Confucius Institutes in many countries. Pound was also interested in Japan; and one cannot afford to neglect that country either. 

Finally, the American foundation documents, leading to the Constitution, continue to be the subject of much study and debate.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Plato


Admired as much for his incomparable literary style as for his challenging doctrines, Plato ranks as one of the best-known and carefully studied philosophers. He wrote in the middle of the fourth century BCE in ancient Athens. Though influenced primarily by Socrates, so that Socrates figures as the main character in many of Plato's earlier writings, he also attended to the lessons of Heraclitus, Parmenides, and the Pythagoreans. In his turn he was the teacher of Aristotle, whose doctrines however are very different.

Plato’s central doctrine is the Theory of Forms.  This concept posits a fundamental distinction between everyday reality vs. the ultimate reality which is normally imperceptible but accessible to the enlightened. In dialogues such as the Phaedo, Symposium, and Republic, the Forms figure as transcendent, perfect archetypes, of which objects in the perceived world are but imperfect copies. According to this view, there is a resplendent world of eternal and changeless forms, the realm of Being, over against which lies a grubby ensemble of Becoming - what Heidegger would later label the Dasein..  This inferior realm in which we are confined, nonetheless partakes, after a fashion, of the qualities of the Forms, and is their instantiation in the sensible world.

Why did Plato adopt this peculiar notion of two worlds? In fact he drew upon a substantial  background in the history of ideas, for Heraclitus and Parmenides, leading pre-Socratic Greek philosophers, broke with the reigning mythological tradition. In this way they initiated the metaphysical approach that strongly influenced Plato and has in some respects lasted until now.

Heraclitus’ thinking stressed the fact that all things are continuously changing, or becoming. Well-known is his signature image of the river, with its ever-changing waters. Plato received the ideas of this philosopher through Cratylus, who stressed even more than his predecessor the idea of change, holding that this vision of pervasive change leads to skepticism, since we can not define a thing that lacks a permanent nature. For his part, Parmenides embraced a contrary vision, advancing the idea of changeless Being, and holding that change is an illusion of the senses.

It seems then that these speculations about change and permanence, or becoming and Being, led Plato to formulate his theory of Forms.

In recent years Plato's ideas about love have attracted considerable interest.  He is mainly concerned with pederasty, or the love of an older man for a youth.  With some reservations he accepted, and even extolled this practice.  Yet in his late work The Laws he stigmatized it as unnatural.

Plato has also been influential as a political theorist, as seen in his accounts of the ideal society in The Republic and the Laws. Yet his ideas have not met with universal approval.

His views were trenchantly attacked in the magnum opus of Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945). The subtitle of his first volume, "The Spell of Plato,” encapsulates Popper's view—namely, that most Plato interpreters through the ages have been seduced by Plato's intellectual brilliance and coruscating style. In so responding, Popper argues, they have treated Plato's political philosophy as a benign idyll, overlooking its dangerous tendencies toward totalitarianism,

Popper extols Plato's analysis of social change and discontent, naming him as a great sociologist, while rejecting his solutions. This rejection reflects Popper's reading of the emerging humanitarian ideals of Athenian democracy as the birth pangs of his coveted "open society."  Plato's distaste for democracy led him, Popper holds, "to defend lying, political miracles, tabooistic superstition, the suppression of truth, and ultimately, brutal violence."

Popper argues that Plato's political ideas are driven by a fear of the process of change that liberal democracies bring about. Moreover, as an aristocrat and a relative of one-time Athenian dictator Critias, Plato sympathized with the oligarchs of his own day, being contemptuous of the common man. Popper also infers that Plato was the victim of his own vanity, wishing to become the supreme Philosopher King of his vision.

Despite lively competition from the Aristotelians, Stoics, and adherents of other schools, Plato continued to be read throughout antiquity. In the third century CE, Plotinus recast Plato's system, establishing Neoplatonism, in which Middle Platonism was fused with mysticism. At the summit of existence stands the One or the Good, as the source of all things. It generates from itself, as if from the reflection of its own being, reason, the nous, or mind, harboring the infinite store of ideas.The world-soul, the copy of the nous, is generated by and contained in it, as the nous is in the One, and, by informing matter in itself nonexistent, constitutes bodies whose existence is contained in the world-soul.[ Nature therefore is a whole, endowed with life and soul. Soul, being chained to matter, longs to escape from the bondage of the body and return to its original source.

In virtue and philosophical thought it has the power to elevate itself above the reason into a state of ecstasy, where it can behold, or ascend to, that one primary Being whom reason cannot know. To attain this union with the Good, or God, is the true function of human beings.  Plotinus' disciple, Porphyry, followed by Iamblichus, developed the system in conscious opposition to Christianity.

The Platonic Academy revived during this period.  Its most renowned head was Proclus (died 485), a celebrated commentator on Plato's writings. The Academy persisted until Byzantine emperor Justinian closed it in 529.

In nineteenth-century Britain the translations of Benjamin Jowett sought to exploit Plato in the service of Victorian ideals. More recent interest in Plato among professional philosophers has been selective, emphasizing his contributions to logic and mathematics.

A recent, quirky response Is Rebecca Goldstein’s book, Plato at the Googleplex.  In addition to a straightforward account of the philosopher’s thought, the writer offers sections where Plato visits the Google office, helps an advice columnist counsel people on problems with their love life, debates a cable-news character, shares the stage with a tiger-mother character and a psychoanalyst to discuss child upbringing, and debates free will with a neuroscientist.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Love


As presented by the Reverend Curry at the royal wedding,  the eulogy of "love" was rousing, but simplistic. In his book on the theme, John Allen Lee recognized six major types of love. The Greek New Testament was careful to make the distinction between agape and eros. The Latin Vulgate introduced a third term: caritas. So matters are not as straightforward as they may at first appear. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Color_wheel_theory_of_loveManage

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Observation

Political polarization takes several forms these days. After I made some remarks urging a nuanced position regarding I/P issues, a German friend opined that I must be a Zionist. I am not, but what if I were? I am aware of excesses committed by the Israeli authorities. Yet I cannot support the Palestinians.

As one journalist admitted, many Palestinians not only claim the West Bank and East Jerusalem as occupied land but also Tel Aviv. Expelling the Jews from Eretz Israel is not going to happen, but advocating this form of ethnic cleansing is heinous. 

I have another reason for distrusting the Palestinians. They persecute and even kill gay men. This unacceptable behavior recalls the Nazi persecution of the Pink Triangles. I would have thought my German acquaintance would show more sensitivity, given his country's history.