Melissa Mohr comes right out with it on the title page of her history of swearing, though the dust-jacket chastely presents the book as Holy Sh*t. Her argument is straightforward. It is that there are two main sources of bad language. One is the holy, which encompasses making oaths in the name of God or parts of his body, such as ‘by God’s wounds’, which later became ‘zounds’, and which George Farquhar in 1699 describes being comically gentrified into ‘zauns’. The other is the shit, which encompasses taboo bodily activities from buggery and beyond to the child’s favourite ‘poo’. In different periods, she argues, either the holy or the shit is the prime source of obscenity.
…She also speculates that future swear words will probably come from some of the milder taboo areas in modern life, such as death and disability. Should we be quite so cheery about swearing or its future? Swear words and oaths often gain their expletive force from the circumstances in which they are uttered. The badness of saying ‘whore’ or ‘God’s wounds’ or ‘bastard’ depends on who you say it to and why – as Queen Elizabeth I’s lord deputy in Ireland Sir John Perrot discovered when his secretary told on him for saying ‘God’s wounds, this it is to serve a base bastard pissing kitchen woman.’ Oaths can carry their potential to hurt or shock into normal conversation, which is why they can be used simply as intensifiers. Maybe we should just say ‘what the hell’ (or the expletive of our choice) and let this happen, because it does happen and will happen. But it isn’t simply prudish to reflect on the dangers of being foul. Many of us now liberally sprinkle our language with words that show we have a liberal attitude to sex and to bodily functions. But words grounded in racial difference (‘pikey’, ‘yid’, ‘paki’) are generally regarded as toxic. The offensive force of those words crucially depends on who says them to whom. Terms of racial and sexual abuse can and do work their way out of their nasty little corners despite the efforts of the law and social propriety to contain them. They are the most likely sources of future bad language.
Pseu-Pseu-Pseudo, I Just Say the Word
And this brings us back to Syria: the ongoing struggle there is ultimately a false one. The only thing to keep in mind is that this pseudo-struggle thrives because of the absent third, a strong radical-emancipatory opposition whose elements were clearly perceptible in Egypt. As we used to say almost half a century ago, one doesn’t have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows in Syria: towards Afghanistan. Even if Assad somehow wins and stabilises the situation, his victory will probably breed an explosion similar to the Taliban revolution which will sweep over Syria in a couple of years. What can save us from this prospect is only the radicalisation of the struggle for freedom and democracy into a struggle for social and economic justice.
So what is happening in Syria these days? Nothing really special, except that China is one step closer to becoming the world’s new superpower while its competitors are eagerly weakening each other.
Now, I won’t even pretend to have a single meaningful thing to say about Syria, but I swear by all the fucked mothers of metaphorical yore, Žižek is one shitful motherfucker. A bearded, bloviating, bullfrog of bullshit. He’s so full of shit — how full of shit is he? — he’s so full of shit that I expect Peezus Myers, another to whom that alliterative description applies, to presently proclaim him the most prescient philosopher today. Fake! False! Pseudo! From the Hegelian heights, much like his rooftop swimming pool in Singapore, this is just him saying fuck you to the insignificant people who failed to redeem their existences by dying in service to the one true teleology, those thousands of spermatozoa wriggling futilely on the washrag of the World-Spirit after an afternoon wank. Thus taxonomized, the messy particulars of geopolitical life which don’t conform to some abstract dialectical system can be dismissed so that Žižek, the concrete universal of pretentious, careerist, obfuscatory, academic leftism can get back to storing his underwear in his pantry, or spreading peanut butter on his flat-screen teevee, or whatever other wild and zany antics might impress some airheaded progressive web journalist.
Everything I Say Has Come Before. Assembled Into Something Into Something Into Something. I Am Never Certain Anymore.
It’s like this: I’ve hit a wall. I’m not completely empty of ideas, but they’re no longer coming fast enough to sustain a column. Imagine a pair of lines on a graph. The one that’s falling is the pleasure that I get from being able to express my thoughts each week in public. The rising one’s the pain that comes from having to. The two lines crossed a few months back, and the prospect ahead is bleak. I’ve never wanted to become a person who repeats himself.
…All Points has concerned itself with culture in the wider sense of our collective self-awareness, and at its best (at least for me), the material for this column has arisen naturally from the daily drift of my attention as I go about my business: reading the paper, listening to NPR, talking to a friend—or more often, free associating about it all later while I make a salad or zone out at the gym. Something gets caught in the net—a way we have of saying things, an assumption that we take for granted. Something shifts enough for me to see a corner of it catch the light. I’ve been staring at it all along, but now I finally notice it. Writing is the act of dragging experience across the threshold of consciousness.
I’ve become habituated, over the last couple of years, to thinking in blog-sized units. That could make a post, I’ll say to myself, the way that fiction writers filter the world for possible stories. It was a useful mindset, for a while: it focused my imagination, and composing the pieces—which took anywhere from a couple of hours to a full day—was the writerly equivalent of doing wind sprints. Lately, though, it’s started to feel confining.
Well, damn. His was my favorite of the weekly columns at the American Scholar. Still, I know how he feels; I’ve been complaining about the same thing myself lately.
I’m under no illusions that there’s any other form of writing that I could be doing. I don’t have the vision, skill, or openness to experience to be a novelist, nor do I have the originality or depth of knowledge to be an essayist. No, the small pond of the blog is the perfect natural environment for this particular fish.
One thing I especially appreciate about blogging is the immediacy of it, the conversational aspect. For me, that serves to forestall any perfectionist tendencies to dwell forever on a post, trying to make it excellent rather than merely good. Get the basic idea down, hit publish, and move along. Return to the theme later if something else occurs to you to say about it. The casual give-and-take of the social web presents a challenge that I’ve been happy to accept — find something worthwhile to say while staying within touching distance of current events. It would be easy to pick one or two topics a month and spend time cultivating my thoughts on them. Is it possible, though, to make a near-daily ritual of it without falling prey to the danger that Deresiewicz himself noted last year, that of refusing to allow the necessary time for thoughts to develop into something worth saying?
I think I’ve made a respectable effort at it, but the fact is, I only have but so much general knowledge about a smattering of topics, and it’s starting to feel like I’ve exhausted my ability to expound on it. Even that might not be a problem, were it not for the fact that I, too, have never wanted to repeat myself. I’m not producing a product here. I know which posts and topics have attracted the most interest and pageviews, and if I were interested in that sort of attention, I could easily start churning out replicas on the assembly line and put some blogads money in my pocket. Sitting down to eat while absentmindedly scrolling through posts sneering at mindless entertainment like the Kardashians or Duck Dynasty is a form of mindless entertainment itself, and one that plenty of bloggers are happy to sell you along with an inflated sense of superiority. I don’t want to peddle my own version of that to anyone. My favorite writers have always been the ones who surprise me with insights that encapsulate thoughts I never even knew I had until then. I’d like to think I could do that for readers, but if not, I’d still rather insult you than flatter your preconceptions or pander to your expectations.
Of course I could be wrong. Perhaps I’ve just been due for a fallow period. Maybe it’s like the dilemma I often heard about rock bands — they had their whole lives to write their debut record, but only a matter of months to produce a follow-up of equal or greater depth. It could be that I had thirty-some years of reading and thinking to draw on for a few years of posts, and it’ll just require some patience to replenish the reservoir. Or possibly the Internet has just been unusually dry and boring over the summer, and there will soon be a cloudburst of inspiration to make me look foolish.
I don’t suppose there’s any tidy conclusion to all this. I’m just thinking out loud. Maybe I’ll start posting a bit less, but nonetheless, here I sit, read and write. I can do no other.
The sad fact is, we can’t publish what we’re not submitted. Tor UK has an open submission policy – as a matter of curiosity we went through it recently to see what the ratio of male to female writers was and what areas they were writing in. The percentages supplied are from the five hundred submissions that we’ve been submitted since the end of January. It makes for some interesting reading. The facts are, out of 503 submissions – only 32% have been from female writers.
…So here’s the thing. As a female editor it would be great to support female authors and get more of them on the list. BUT they will be judged exactly the same way as every script that comes into our in-boxes. Not by gender, but how well they write, how engaging the story is, how well-rounded the characters are, how much we love it.
I’ll Hate You Better
One of the worst things about the internet is that it tempts everyone to be a sophisticate – to take positions on what is hip and to consider, under pain of being considered unhip, the positions that everyone else is taking. Kraus may not have cared about hipness per se, but he certainly revelled in taking positions and was keenly attuned to the positions of others. He was a sophisticate, and this is one reason Die Fackel has a bloglike feel. Kraus spent a lot of time reading stuff he hated, so as to be able to hate it with authority.
The question is whether the effects of this dynamic are salutary or negative. Being the internet skeptic that I am, I personally feel that the dynamic is an unhealthy one. While I believe in the necessity of social conditioning, I think that such conditioning is most appropriate when influencing community behavior, and least beneficial when it comes to arguments and ideas, which suffer if they are too easily influenced by social pressure. In other words, the online world, which much more resembles a debate hall, classroom, or legislative body than a social community, is precisely where we would least hope to find explicit markers of social approval. What’s more, it’s important to think about what kinds of online behavior tend to get these little nods of approval. Jokes, insults, messages of professional regard, and showy displays of disaffection are just as likely to receive these little digital strokes as good writing, thoughtful ideas, or kindness. And by their nature, some of the most important of social values can never be rewarded in this way: humility, reserve, gentleness, restraint, and quiet compassion. If the internet frequently feels like a pit of meanness and obligatory jokes, that’s because those are the behaviors that are most rewardable and are most rewarded.
I Am Just a Copy of a Copy of a Copy. I Am Just an Echo of an Echo of an Echo.
It’s now been eight years since I started this blog, and about five since I started making a serious, consistent effort at it. Maybe in another five years, I’ll actually be able to consider myself good at it.
There’s a scene in the film Beyond the Clouds where an archaeologist hires some tribesmen to lead him to an site deep in the mountains. After they had been moving for some time the tribesmen stopped and insisted they would go no further. The archaeologist grew impatient and then angry. But no matter how much he cajoled the tribesmen would not go any further. Then all of a sudden the tribesmen changed their attitude. They picked up the gear and set off once more. When the bewildered archaeologist asked why they had stopped and refused to move for so long, the tribesmen answered, “We had been moving too fast and had to wait for our souls to catch up.”
That’s the kind of living the cult of busy promotes. The kind of living in which we move so fast our souls have no time to catch up, on purpose: so we don’t have to face them.
I’ve been a lot busier than I like lately, but there’s nothing romantic about barely making ends meet, so I’ll grin and bear it. Plus, I’ve also been making more time for swimming, playing computerized chess, working out, and catching up on my dead-tree reading. Unfortunately, writing suffers as a result, but, in an attempt to accentuate the positive, I’m using the downtime to reconsider my own writing, both in content and style. Maybe there are better sites out there I could be using for inspiration, along the excellent lines of 3 Quarks Daily, the Browser, or Bookforum’s Omnivore. Perhaps I should aim to post less frequently in order to improve the quality-to-quantity ratio. There are a lot of people who will make snide remarks about the mindless entertainment habits of the average Myrrhkin, only to indulge in the equally mindless pursuit of reading the same blogs every day writing the same posts about the same predictable topics. There but for the grace of nonexistent gods go I.
Dependable, Clinical, Intellectual, Cynical
Popper’s dissection of the open’s society’s enemies was insightful, but his defense was far too rationalist and embedded in Platonic traditions itself. As a philosopher, he put far too much emphasis on the articulated conversation within open societies, and not enough on the unarticulated, practical knowledge which can only survive when left alone.
…Popper understood that adopting rationalism was not itself a rationally-founded choice, but a moral one. He justified this adoption on the grounds that rationalism offered the only path to non-arbitrary decision making. In Popper’s world, it’s either rational debate or chaos, reason-driven decisions or knee-jerk emotional appeals. The reality, as we now know, is that it’s always much closer to the latter. To the extent that there is such a thing as “reason”, it operates very narrowly within the context provided by the people around us and the culture and traditions we are embedded within.
Interesting. Reminds me of an illuminating article by Razib Khan. I’ll have to keep that in mind whenever I get around to reading Popper (both volumes of The Open Society and its Enemies are in my Amazon wish list, but of course, there’s still a long way to go from that point).
To the Flames
Well, the truth may need some rearranging
Stories to be told
And plain to see the facts are changing
No meaning left to hold
– The Human League
The downward spiral continues. Peezus’s shallow leftism has now come to incorporate postmodernism. So utterly predictable, and yet so, so hilarious.
As for the general value of postmodernist “thought”, my attempts to understand it led me to the conclusion that the parts that are true are insipid banalities, and the rest is weaponized jargon. I can’t do any better than reprint what Noam Chomsky said long ago:
Since no one has succeeded in showing me what I’m missing, we’re left with the second option: I’m just incapable of understanding. I’m certainly willing to grant that it may be true, though I’m afraid I’ll have to remain suspicious, for what seem good reasons. There are lots of things I don’t understand — say, the latest debates over whether neutrinos have mass or the way that Fermat’s last theorem was (apparently) proven recently. But from 50 years in this game, I have learned two things: (1) I can ask friends who work in these areas to explain it to me at a level that I can understand, and they can do so, without particular difficulty; (2) if I’m interested, I can proceed to learn more so that I will come to understand it. Now Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, Kristeva, etc. — even Foucault, whom I knew and liked, and who was somewhat different from the rest — write things that I also don’t understand, but (1) and (2) don’t hold: no one who says they do understand can explain it to me and I haven’t a clue as to how to proceed to overcome my failures. That leaves one of two possibilities: (a) some new advance in intellectual life has been made, perhaps some sudden genetic mutation, which has created a form of “theory” that is beyond quantum theory, topology, etc., in depth and profundity; or (b) … I won’t spell it out.
Again, I’ve lived for 50 years in these worlds, have done a fair amount of work of my own in fields called “philosophy” and “science,” as well as intellectual history, and have a fair amount of personal acquaintance with the intellectual culture in the sciences, humanities, social sciences, and the arts. That has left me with my own conclusions about intellectual life, which I won’t spell out. But for others, I would simply suggest that you ask those who tell you about the wonders of “theory” and “philosophy” to justify their claims — to do what people in physics, math, biology, linguistics, and other fields are happy to do when someone asks them, seriously, what are the principles of their theories, on what evidence are they based, what do they explain that wasn’t already obvious, etc. These are fair requests for anyone to make. If they can’t be met, then I’d suggest recourse to Hume’s advice in similar circumstances: to the flames.
A clear, cogent summary from an unimpeachable intellect. I’m sure that would be met with a calm and reasonable accusation of rape or pedophilia in return.
This Most Unusual and Loneliest Thinker
I am utterly amazed, utterly enchanted! I have a precursor, and what a precursor! I hardly knew Spinoza: that I should have turned to him just now, was inspired by “instinct.” Not only is his overtendency like mine—namely to make all knowledge the most powerful affect—but in five main points of his doctrine I recognize myself; this most unusual and loneliest thinker is closest to me precisely in these matters: he denies the freedom of the will, teleology, the moral world-order, the unegoistic, and evil. Even though the divergencies are admittedly tremendous, they are due more to the difference in time, culture, and science. In summa: my lonesomeness, which, as on very high mountains, often made it hard for me to breathe and make my blood rush out, is now at least a twosomeness. Strange!
Among the boldest elements of Spinoza’s philosophy is his conception of God. Spinoza’s God, as presented in the Ethics, is a far cry from the traditional God of the Abrahamic religions. What Spinoza calls “God or Nature” (Deus sive Natura) lacks all of the psychological and ethical attributes of a providential deity. His God is not some personal agent endowed with will and understanding and even emotions, capable of having preferences and making informed choices. Spinoza’s God does not formulate plans, issue commands, have expectations, or make judgments. Neither does Spinoza’s God possess anything like moral character. His God is neither good nor wise nor just. It is a category mistake to think of God in normative or value terms. What God is, for Spinoza, is Nature itself—the infinite, eternal, and necessarily existing substance of the universe. God or Nature just is; and whatever else is, is “in” or a part of God or Nature. Put another way, there is only Nature and its power; and everything that happens, happens in and by Nature. There is no transcendent or even immanent supernatural deity; there is nothing whatsoever outside of or distinct from Nature and independent of its processes.
…Perhaps the most deleterious superstition of all is the belief in the immortality of the soul. Like the notion of a providential God, the idea that a person will experience a postmortem existence in some world-to-come is a part of all three Abrahamic religions. While there is, of course, much diversity among the major faiths about what exactly happens to a person when he dies, and while Judaism, at least, generally does not make the belief in immortality a necessary tenet of the faith, the eternal fate of the soul was of the utmost importance to the great majority of Spinoza’s contemporaries, and this is what he found so troubling. In his view, a robust doctrine of personal immortality, like the eschatology that accompanies it, only strengthens those harmful passions that undermine the life of reason. He devotes a good deal of the final part of his Ethics to showing that while there is, in a sense, an eternal part of the human mind that remains after a person’s death—namely, the knowledge and ideas that she has acquired in this lifetime—there is nothing personal about it. When you are dead, Spinoza is saying, you are dead.