Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The cults of facts

I  am not tempted by the notion of "alternative facts." By the same token, there is something naive about the view, common in anglophone countries, that there are some easily detected nuggets of truth, called facts, that require no nuance or qualification. 

By contrast, in the Kantian tradition facts are always enveloped in a penumbra of expectation and interpretation. This does not mean that one should reject the finding that some assertions have a greater truth value than competing ones, but in many instances this superiority is less easily established than the cult of facts would suggest.

Outright lies should always be exposed as such. What I am questioning is whether, in combatting them, we may rely on on an indisputable body of facts. My early studies with Karl Popper taught me that there is a spectrum ranging from mathematical propositions, which have the highest truth value - on the one hand - and outright lies of the Goebbels type - on the other. My view is that in our society liberals are too quick to congratulate themselves with the claim that they adhere only to facts. 

With experience most politicians (of whatever stripe) learn to cultivate techniques of evasion, such as dancing around an issue, answering a question that was not asked, semantic quibbling ("it depends on what "is" means"), and so forth. Deployment of these techniques does not, in my view, reflect a strict adherence to facts, Yet to survive in politics it seems mandatory to acquire proficiency in the gray area populated by these verbal devices.

In her important monograph A Culture of Fact, England 1550-1720, Barbara J. Shapiro shows how our peculiar devotion to fact arose in England in the early modern period, when it became intertwined with empiricist philosophy. She traces the origins of this emphasis not to natural science but to legal discourse. Shapiro follows the concept's evolution and diffusion across a variety of disciplines in early modern England, examining how the emerging "culture of fact" shaped the epistemological assumptions undergirding each intellectual enterprise. In her view, the crucial first step in this transition occurred in the sixteenth century when the English common law established a definition of fact relying on eyewitnesses and testimony. Shapiro also recounts how England's preoccupation with fact permeated historiography, religion, and literature―which saw the rise of a fact-oriented fictional genre, the novel. I would add that, among academics at least, the prestige of fact only began to erode in the 1960s when the ideal of historical objectivity came under attack.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Anti-Trump Marches

Saturday's marches, in a whole host of cities, were indeed impressive. Perhaps, though, it is not too soon to ask what are the long-term prospects for social change as powered by such events? 

The gold standard is of course the 1963 civil-rights march on Washington, which yielded MLK's "I Have a Dream Speech." This signal event was preceded by a long period of preparation. The first march was proposed in 1941 by A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of SleepingCar Porters. African Americans had benefited less than other groups from New Deal programs during the Great Depression, and continuing racial discrimination excluded them from defense jobs in the early 1940s. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt showed little inclination to take action on the problem, Randolph called for a March on Washington by fifty thousand people. After repeated efforts to persuade Randolph and his fellow leaders that the march would be inadvisable, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 in June 1941, forbidding discrimination by any defense contractors and establishing the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) to investigate charges of racial discrimination. 

The March on Washington was then canceled. Yet the idea survived. I am most familiar with the LGBT marches in Washington, and by no means an expert, yet the comparison may yield some general conclusions. The efficacy of such events depends on two factors: 1) a specific focus on goals, centrally the redressing of long-standing grievances; and 2) a fairly lengthy period of gestation during which various strategies can be tried out and assessed. 

I am sorry to play the role of Debbie Downer, but I am not sure if these two conditions can be met in the wake of the current demonstrations, impressive as they are in terms of passion and numbers. The full horror, if you will, of Trump has only been evident for some months - not a long period. Moreover, the causes of the marchers are quite various, for they do not have a single focus, apart from dismay at the result of the election.

There remains the larger issue. Under what circumstances are we prepared to have public policy promulgated in the streets? Sometimes, I would say, yes. But the issue needs to be carefully assessed.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Deep State

    The concept of the Deep State has its roots in the Iron Law of Oligarchy propounded by Gaetano Mosca and his associates a hundred years ago. However, it has assumed an essentially American guise, first adumbrated by Eisenhower in his warning about the military-industrial complex.
    Yet our Deep State has evolved and grown since then, enormously, also forging international connections such as those evident in the Davos gatherings. In a nutshell it is essentially a matter of following the money, with much in the way of lucrative transactions occurring in the greater DC area. The huge payoffs constantly undergird the determination of the players to resist any steps to dismantle their ploys, not to mention the veil of silence that generally surrounds these operations as far as the general pubic knows. Many Washington insiders do know, but they prefer to keep their jobs instead of speaking out.
    Mike Lofgren, with much relevant experience, explains.

    In a must-read essay, former GOP congressional analyst Mike Lofgren analyzes America's "Deep State," in which elected and unelected figures collude to serve powerful vested interests.

    LikeShow more reactions

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Karl With

For some reason I thought back on one of my undergraduate teachers of art history at UCLA. Karl With was born in Germany in 1891. Neither Jewish nor a Communist, he left Nazi Germany out of principle, settling in Los Angeles.
As a kind of assistant, I frequently had occasion to listen to this professor's fascinating reminiscences, such as those stemming from the year he spent in Japan. At all events, towards the end of his life (he died in 1980) he was working on a book - never completed - on the basic principles of art, inspired I believe by his awareness of Bauhaus teachings. Karl With maintained that all art rested on a few primordial forms, such as the sphere, the pyramid, the cube, the rectangular solid, and a few others.
He asked other questions. Why do beer steins rest solidly on their base with a low center of gravity, while wine vessels have a stem separating them from the base? The reason is that we regard wine as a noble beverage that we seek to honor by elevating it from mere terrestrial reality; plebeian beer requires no such hoity-toity coddling. I am not much of a beer drinker, but I would not think of pouring that beverage into a wine glass.

 Karl With was a participant in one of the great intellectual developments of the time (the 1930s), the Transatlantic Migration of scholars and creative figures, mainly from Central Europe, to our shores. In its day Los Angeles was a prime goal. Some Hollywood figures, like Marlene Dietrich and Ernst Lubitsch, had come earlier. Others, such as Jean Renoir and Michelle Morgan, arrived later. There were also major writers such as Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht, not to omit the Englishmen Christopher Isherwood and Aldous Huxley. And one must not forget the two most influential composers, Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky. My parents moved in more modest literary circles, so that as a kid I did not meet any of these luminaries. When I came to New York for graduate work I did (though a different bunch); the contact changed my life fundamentally.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Two years back - and today

By and large people have stopped producing annual roundups of their doings. I am not sure why. In my case it stems from reluctance to lament about my health problems: I am dealing with them, and that suffices. 

I will report one major publication for last year: my History of Art History. My other big publication in days of yore was the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, just reprinted by a UK publisher.

My comments from two years ago:

At the beginning of the year I published two books: “The Homophobic Mind” and “Changes, Eros, Culture: A Memoir.” The first reflects my abiding concern about the stereotypes that have long accompanied same-sex love, and are not dead even today. The second is a kind of intellectual autobiography. Both books are available on Amazon.

My turning 80 in August coincided with the retirement of my wonderful doctor of twenty years standing. I am still looking for another one but have not felt pressed, because my health is generally good. {Then, not now.]
For most of the year I was engaged in several research projects, some old concerns, others new ones.
In high school one of the products of my teaching myself French was my attachment to the prose of Gustave Flaubert. Later I became interested, for theoretical reasons, in the work of Alexis de Tocqueville. My comparative project, which yielded one of my longer blogposts focused on their common interest in North Africa. Because of the overtones of imperialism and orientalism, the results were somewhat astringent.
Then I turned to a real challenge: to try to make sense of the “first philosophers,” the Presocratics of ancient Greece. The most interesting ones are clearly Heraclitus and Parmenides. I assimilated as much of the recent scholarship as I could, but ultimately concluded that I was out of my depth.
Now I have returned to an interest that goes back to my teenage years: the nature of modernism. I am approaching this matter by focusing on two key figures: Pablo Picasso and Ezra Pound. In 2014 Picasso has garnered renewed attention because of four exhibitions currently running here in NYC: the Lauder Collection at the Metropolitan Museum, and three big shows at private galleries. Having seen these exhibitions, I took the occasion to review recent contributions on Cubism. Of these, the Picasso monograph by Pepe Karmel seems the most probing and fundamental. All the same, the logical status of Cubism in the unfolding of modern art remains unsettled. Clearly it was very important, but it no longer ranks as a truly epochal turning point, as it did in my youth.
Pound’s eclecticism helps to explain the ongoing scholarly contributions addressing the poet, a number of them quite probing. Recent monographs - there is a whole raft of them - have explored the poet’s engagement with such topics as ancient China, John Adams, and Scotus Eriugena (the medieval Irish philosopher).
Evaluation of Pound’s extreme rightwing views continues - and the results of the inquiry are disconcerting, to say the least. However, similar political leanings characterized a number of key modernist writers, such as T. S. Eliot and Wyndham Lewis, F. T. Marinetti and Louis-Ferdinand Céline, John Dos Passos and James Burnham. Pound’s efforts in the 1930s to reinvent himself as an economist by embracing the Social Credit movement of Major C. H. Douglas now seem amateurish and half-baked. Yet in these latter days, with both Keynsianism and Austrian economics faltering, it may be time to look into alternative traditions. For example, Thomas Piketty’s formula “r > g” (meaning that the rate of return on capital is generally higher than the rate of economic growth) looks curiously like the much-criticized A plus B thesis of Social Credit.