Sex in a tree…

October 24, 2009

chaucer portrait merchants tale

…how can that be?

My apologies to Dr. Seuss, but surely he wouldn’t have objected to being confused with Geoffrey Chaucer.   I’m thinking of  Hop on Pop’s line, “three fish in a tree?”  The Merchant’s Tale involves exactly that, in a tree. Sex, that is.

I haven’t read Chaucer since college, but I picked up a copy of The Canterbury Tales in a bookstore, and was enthralled.  The Middle English takes a while to get used to, you can’t get every word, and I don’t know how to pronounce it, but the rhythm of it carries you along nevertheless.  The edition I bought has the most obscure words glossed in the margin, and the hardest phrases explained at the page’s foot so you don’t have to be flipping to a glossary in the back all the time.  The link above is to an interlinear translation, but I find that annoying to read.

Oh yeah, back to the sex, er…the story.  The pilgrims tell stories to pass the time on the way to Canterbury.  The merchant tells one about a rich old man, January, who finally decides to get married.  Of course, he is set on marrying a young and pretty woman, and he takes the time to find just the right one, named May.  She consents – that’s the way things worked in those days.  It’s not all that clear just how well the old guy performs in bed with his well formed young wife.

Things being what they were, and are, she and a young man in the household develop some feeling for one another.  The old man goes blind, but he keeps up his favorite custom of making love to his wife al fresco in his walled garden with a gate.  Nobody there but the two of them,

And May his wyf, and no wight but they two;
And thynges whiche that were nat doon abedde,
He in the gardyn parfourned hem and spedde.

and they did things there that they didn’t do in bed.

The girl and her lover get a copy of the key to the garden, and the next time she goes there with the old man, the young one is waiting in the tree’s branches.  The tree is a fruit tree, a pear tree.  January, May.  A walled garden with a fruit tree, Eden and the apple (or was it a pear) tree?  A blind man, without knowledge of his wife’s adultery.  But they will eat of the tree.

The girl says she absolutely must have some pears, and the old man curses the absence of his servants to fetch her some.  She has an idea – he bends down and she steps on his back and climbs up into the branches to get the fruit.  Yes, she gets the fruit all right.  Up in the tree, her love is waiting, and he

Gan pullen up the smok, and in he throng.

In case you missed it, throng is the past participle of thrust. Once again, the tree of knowledge has brought its bitter fruit to bear on man.  I wonder also if this is an allusion to a famous passage in Augustine’s Confessions in which he recounts his youthful sin of stealing pears from a neighbors orchard.  And the image of a woman stepping on an old man’s back calls to mind another medieval image of man humiliated by woman.

Meanwhile, Pluto and Prosperine are observing the entire business from a corner of the garden.  Pluto vows that if May cheats on January, he will give the old man his sight back.  He wants men to be able to see the evil things woman do to them.  Prosperine, his wife, scoffs at his male chauvinist drivel, and sticks up for women.  If Pluto gives him his sight back, she will make sure that May can talk her way out the impasse.

January gets his sight – the scales drop from his eyes? – and he is infuriated.  May is ready with an answer.  You didn’t see what you think you saw.  After being blind for so long, it takes a while to get used to sight again.  You’re confused.  Really, you should thank me for being up here wrestling with this man – that’s what cured you!  I was told that is the way to restore your sight!

Nothing doing, cries January!

He swyved thee; I saugh it with myne yen,
And elles be I hanged by the hals!”
[He screwed thee; I saw it with my eyes
And else may I be hanged by the neck!]

May is a quick-witted girl.  She replies that if this is what he saw, then her cure wasn’t as good as she had thought.  Obviously, he still has vision problems.

So there we have it.  A little sex farce set in a modern (for then) Eden.  Woman tempts man again, the tree of kowledge brings sight, but having knowledge isn’t such a great thing all the time. Or do we really have the knowledge we think we do?

Cloud of (Un)knowing

August 16, 2009


It’s rare that my quotidian work matches my philosophic preoccupations closely, but sometimes it happens.  The Union Station in Toronto has a train shed roof (above) that is a landmark.  The supporting framework (truss) is distinctive, and was a patented design, also used in Hoboken, NJ.

Engineers like to work from plans, drawings, diagrams, like the one below.  Clean, precise, accurate.  Unambiguous…we think.  Problem was, there were no such drawings in existence.  To create them from hand measurements – a huge and expensive task.  Enter the laser scanner. Millions of points, all with (x,y,z) coordinates.  We call them point clouds.  Clouds of knowing (cf. Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite on the cloud), points of certainty.  This is there! Information, data, rich enough to make these precise drawings.


What is the grain of knowledge?  How granular is reality?  What is?



Zoom in far enough, and there is only empty space.  As it is inside us, and outside us.


Doubt in Eden

May 11, 2009

from Genesis

1 Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?
2 And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden:
3 But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.
4 And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:
For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

Now, did the serpent mean: It is certain that you will not die? Or did he mean: It is not certain that you will die? Is this a purposeful ambiguity? Funny that there should be this element of doubt right at the beginning, when knowledge is given to man. Skepticism is at the root, shall we say.

Is the serpent inviting Eve into a structured risky venture, this knowlege business? An invitation to risk assessment? Perhaps she did a quick cost-benefit analysis, and it came out positive for benefit.

The eternal subjectivity

May 9, 2009

Logo as colorblindness test

This is a new shirt of mine.  It’s from a line called ‘Penguin.’  That’s the logo, there on the front.  Can you see it?  Clearly?  As a colorblind person, this shirt appealed to me so much, I put aside my usual prohibition of wearing clothes with designer logos on them.subjectivity_det

I can make it out, barely, but then I know what to look for.  I don’t know if it’s a real colorblindness test chart:  Real ones don’t have dots that are clearly divided into different colors – see the little image here.  Dvided dots make the edges of the figure easier to see.

I show it to people, and they say they can make it out perfectly.  A strong pattern.  Are they messing with me?  Do they really see it differently?  How would I know?   Are we even speaking the same language about color?  Are we speaking the same language at all?  How can I, could I, ever know…anything?

Tear-jerking Episodes from
Life of a Young Philosopher

Kindergarten Teacher: Why have you colored the water with silver and white crayon?  Water is blue.
Me: Not when it comes out of the faucet.

Mother: What time does the clock say?
Me:I don’t know.
Mother: Look at the clock!
Me: But it’s always a little bit before or a little bit after whatever time I say it is.  Even if it’s exactly noon, it’s never really noon.  It’s a itty bitty second before or after…
Mother: Oh you…..!

Me: Yeah, so I see colors better in strong light. Everyone does. The less light we have, the less color there is. So if there’s almost no light, there’s almost no color. SO, in the dark, everything must be without color. Everything is colorless. Everything is clear, transparent!!
Sixth Grade Teacher and ClassmatesUproarous and derisive laughter. In the background, a few students are heard to start up a chorus of stamping feet and the shout of “Bovary, Bo-va-ry, Bo-VA-ry!”

Night thoughts

May 8, 2009

“Hence, so far as their form is concerned, much can be said a priori about these objects, but nothing can ever be said about the thing in itself which may underlie these appearances”

Immanuel Kant, General Observations on the Transcendental Aesthetic

Didn’t Heinrich von Kleist remark, after reading Kant, that he was “disgusted by all that we call knowledge?”

night_5 night_3

night_2 night_4

night_1 night_7


Cruisin’ with Immanuel Kant

May 4, 2009

Petra von Kant crying bitter tears

Wow! How’s this for an introduction to the great thinker!


from the Introduction to The Critique of Pure Reason (Penguin Classics) Marcus Weigelt (Editor, Introduction, Translator), Max Muller (Translator)

Is Terra Burning…and how do we know?

March 20, 2009


I’m feeling like a crank, but somebody’s got to do this dirty job…

I just read Chapter 4 of this book,  Climate Change: What It Means for Us, Our Children, and Our Grandchildren. The chapter I read is called “The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change:  How Do We Know We’re Not Wrong?” and it’s by Naomi Oreskes.  Professor Oreskes is now well known for an essay she published in Science in which she described the results of a survey of nearly 1000 scientific papers, and concluded that the consensus was clearly on the side of global warming being caused by human industrial activity.  To quote her university profile page:

Her 2004 essay “The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change” (Science 306: 1686), led to Op-Ed pieces in the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Los Angeles Times, and has been widely cited in the mass media, including National Public Radio (Fresh Air), The New Yorker, USA Today, Parade, as well as in the Royal Society’s publication, “A guide to facts and fictions about climate change,” and, most recently, in Al Gore’s movie, “An Inconvenient Truth.”

The notion of an established consensus on anthropogenic global warming (AGW) especially one established by survey, always struck me as dubious.  I have read only the abstract of her survey paper, but Chapter 4 restates her work and also addresses general questions about the sociology and philosophy of scientific knowledge.  Her reasoning, I believe, is grossly superficial, and obviously influenced by her bias in favor of AGW.  I have to do this, point by point, here we go…italics and emphasis all mine.

Scientists glean their colleagues’ conclusions by reading their results in published scientific literature, listening to presentations at scientific conferences, and discussing data and ideas in the hallways of conference centers, university departments, research institutes, and government agencies. …

Climate science is a little different. Because of the political importance of the topic, scientists have been unusually motivated to explain their research results in accessible ways, and explicit statements of the state of scientific knowledge are easy to find.

“A little different” is a colossal understatement.  The debate has been heavily political because the supporters of AGW advocate far reaching economic changes.  (It happens that I agree with many of their proposals!)  The nature of the debate has been formed also by the circumstance that it isn’t possible to do killer confirmatory experiments to settle the issue and because so much of the base data is disputable in various ways.  Many discussions devolve into debates over statistical methodology.

The IPCC is an unusual scientific organization: it was created not to foster new research but to compile and assess existing knowledge on a politically charged issue. Perhaps its conclusions have been skewed by these political concerns, but the IPCC is by no means alone it its conclusions, and its results have been repeatedly ratified by other scientific organizations.

The question is ratified how, and by whom?  Could not these other organizations have similar biases?  Morever, statements issued by organizations in support of AGW are given much weight in the media, while petitions and letters signed by dissenters are treated as fringe efforts.

These kinds of reports and statements are drafted through a careful process involving many opportunities for comment, criticism, and revision, so it is unlikely that they would diverge greatly from the opinions of the societies’ memberships. Nevertheless, it could be the case that they downplay dissenting opinions. [note 2]

This does not fit with my knowledge of how organizations function.  Usually, there is a small group of very active people.  It is quite possible that the editorial arms of such professional groups have been ‘captured’ by AGW advocates.  In fact, in her note, Oreskes admits as much, using the Catholic Church as an example.  The views of the priests and the laity are often contradictory.


Here is the graphed output from Oreskes’ survey.  She is not particularly disturbed by the fact that no papers at all were discovered that denied/refuted the AGW “consensus,” not a one!

Under the category of Impacts she collects papers that discuss the “potential…or actual impacts” of warming.  Of course, if a paper (I have read several such) begins with the phrase, “Many experts predict warming over the next N years of X magnitude…” and then goes on to assess the ramifications of this speculative change, is this an “endorsement” of the AGW hypothesis?  Does the fact that nobody writes papers about the likely effects of no AGW indicate that nobody thinks the theory is bad?  Of course not!  There wouldn’t be anything to write about!  People who think it will happen as predicted are concerned, and write papers about it.  It also is a handy way to churn out papers in the publish-or-perish mill.  You don’t have to prove anything, just suppose…Similarly, papers that deal with the observed effects of climate change don’t necessarily prove anything about why it is changing.  Oreskes takes the opposite view – all these papers endorse the consensus.

[Note:  We know now that the process of peer review was strongly influenced  by politics  - see my posts on the release of emails called 'Climategate'.  6/4/11]

She also neglects the obvious fact that people who think AGW is a worthless notion will not write papers about this.  What is there to investigate?  People who regard it as plausible but have doubts are in the same position.  Morever, if they are serious scientists, they want to write about their discipline, which may or may not be relevant to the debate, but their priority is to make defensible scientific claims.  Thus, there is quite possibly a vast reservoir of skepticism out there that is missed by her survey.


Second, to say that global warming is real and happening now is not the same as agreeing about what will happen in the future. Much of the continuing debate in the scientific community involves the likely rate of future change.

So, of what does this consensus consist? If we agree that warming is happening now (and not everyone agrees) but we don’t agree on what will happen in the future, how do we have a consensus on the direction of climate change under the influence of human activity?  All scientists agree on the reality of climate change, but that is very different than saying they agree on AGW.

Third, there is the question of what kind of dissent still exists. … The total number of papers published over the last ten years having anything at all to do with climate change is probably over ten thousand, and no  doubt some of the authors of the other over nine thousand papers have expressed skeptical or dissenting views. But the fact that the sample turned up no dissenting papers at all demonstrates that any remaining professional dissent is now exceedingly minor.

This might have something to do with the fact that global circulation models (GCMs) are not falsifiable, not subject to controlled experiments, a point which Oreskes treats later on.  If they were, there would be clear target at which critics could aim.  In cases where critics have attempted to directly contradict specific AGW claims, e.g., the Hockey Stick controversy, their arguments, if accepted, are dismissed as unimportant.  How do you write a dissenting scientific paper about a point of view that you think is simply indefensible?

On the media war…

This suggests something discussed elsewhere in this book—that the mass media have paid a great deal of attention to a handful of dissenters in a manner that is greatly disproportionate with their representation in the scientific ommunity.

…they [contrarians] do no new scientific research. They are not producing new evidence or new  arguments. They are simply attacking the work of others and  mostly doing so in the court of public opinion and in the mass media rather than in the halls of science.  This latter point is crucial and merits underscoring: the vast majority of materials denying the reality of global warming do not pass the most basic test for what it takes to be counted as scientific…

There certainly are rabid and irresponsible kooks in the anti-AGW camp.  Of course, the last sentence quoted above would apply equally well to the pro-AGW materials.  I would say that Al Gore’s statements fit in there well.  This text was written in 2007, so I find Oreskes’ lamenting of the media attitude to be puzzling.  My sense is that the mass-media are firmly in the AGW camp, and are condescending and dismissive of opposing views, except in outlets that target a libertarian or right-wing political demographic.  Finally, it needs to be pointed out that to be a good critic of the basic assumptions and methodologies of the AGW camp, you don’t need to be doing new research:  you need to have a good understanding of modern science.

At this point, Oreskes switches gears and become more philosophical in a section called “How Do We Know We’re Not Wrong?”  Always a good question to ask.  She begins by reviewing the nature of science, and inductive and deductive reasoning.  Then this:

How does climate science stand up to the inductive model? Does climate science rest on a strong inductive base? Yes.  Humans have been making temperature records consistently for over 150 years, and nearly all scientists who have looked carefully at these records see an overall increase since the industrial revolution about 0.6 to 0.7 deg C… The empirical signal is clear, even if not all the details are clear.

Either there is a clear signal, or there is not.  What does it mean to say that the signal is clear, but the details aren’t?  Isn’t that where the devil is?

How reliable are the early records?  How do you average the data to be representative of the globe as a whole, even though much of the early data comes from only a few places, mostly in Europe?  Scientists have spent quite a bit of time addressing these questions; most have satisfied themselves that the empirical signal is clear.

Of course, this is the nub of so much of the debate, and she skates over it blithely.  Scientists who support the AGW position have convinced themselves, others have not…She goes on to assert that doubts about the older temperature records are not important because the recent, most significant increases in temperature are correlated with the recent upsurge of CO2.  But…but…if the historical record is not as the AGW people would have it, then the historical relationship of CO2 and temperature is not either, and that calls into doubt the contemporary relationship of the two.  So the recent upsurge of both, if it is real on the temperature side, might be due to other causes.

On deductive reasoning:

How does climate science stand up to this standard? Have climate scientists made predictions that have come true? AbsolutelyThe most obvious is the fact of global warming itself. As already has been noted in previous chapters, scientific concern over the effects of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide is based on physics—the fact that CO2 is a greenhouse gas.

Wow, this one is a howler!  Nobody denies the warm blanket effect of CO2 – the question is how that functions in the complex climate system of planet Earth.  Her formulation begs the question entirely.  If one assumes that natural variation is the cause of the putative currrent warming, then the fact of warming proves nothing about AGW.  And, of course, Nostradamus predicted things, or so people say, that have come about too.

Professor Oreskes is no slouch – she goes on to squarely face the Popper Question:  How does one falsify the AGW point of view?

How does climate science hold up to this modification?  Can climate models be refuted? Falsification is a bit of a problem for all models—not just climate models—because many models are built to forecast the future and the results will not be known for some time.

…calibration can make models refutation-proof: the model doesn’t get rejected; it gets revised.

A bit of  understatement there, about falsification.  Yes, models don’t get rejected, they get tweaked until they give the proper results.  She says that modelers get around this by running many models, ensembles, and comparing the results.  They all show warming – only the tempo and mode vary.  But what if the basic assumptions of all the models are wrong?

Is it possible that all these model runs are wrong? Yes,because they are variations on a theme. If the basic model conceptualization was wrong in some way, then all the models runs would be wrong. Perhaps there is a negative feedback loop that we have not yet recognized. … This is one reason that continued scientific investigation is warranted. But note that Svante Arrhenius and Guy Callendar predicted global warming before anyone ever built a global circulation model (or even had a digital computer). Climate models give us a tool for exploring scenarios and interactions, but you don’t need a climate  model to know that global warming is a real problem.

Oreskes answers her excellent question here with a monumental non sequitur.  The fact that Arrhenius made his predictions long ago does nothing to validate the content of the models.  His predictions were, I believe, for much more warming than is even claimed today.  Her final statement amounts to using her argument as conclusion to support her argument, and recalls to mind an editorial in the NYTimes from a while back.

Finally, we come to this:

Should we believe that the global increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide has had a negligible effect even though basic physics indicates otherwise?  Should we believe that the correlation between increased CO2 and increased temperature is just a weird coincidence? If there were no theoretical reason to relate them and if Arrhenius, Callendar, Suess, and Revelle had not predicted that all this would all happen, then one might well conclude that rising CO2 and rising temperature were merely coincidental. But we have every reason to believe that there is a causal connection and no good reason to believe that it is a coincidence. Indeed, the only reason we might think otherwise is to avoid committing to action: if this is just a natural cycle in which humans have played no role, then maybe global warming will go away on its own in due course.

And that sums up the problem. To deny that global warming is real is precisely to deny that humans have become geological agents, changing the most basic physical processes of the earth.

In her summing up, Oreskes brings up basic physics again.  Again, not the issue.  The issue is feedbacks in a complex system.  And the nature of the basic facts on the ground.  Weird coincidence?  The only thing that makes it weird is the predisposition to accept AGW.  Of course, she mixes political with scientific argument by assuming that all critics are against doing anything to address human impacts on the environment – I’m not.  To end, many people think that humans have become significant agents for change on the earth – this is not a new idea.  Criticizing AGW doesn’t have much to do with that position.

And by the way, in case any readers are wondering where I stand: the earth is round, and the Holocaust did happen.

Ich bin ein kitschmensch!

January 2, 2009

When I am old, I shall write criticism; that will console me, for I often choke with suppressed opinions.

-Gustave Flaubert in a letter to George Sand, 1868

garden-gnome-pipe-9r pompier gerome-femmes-au-bain1179060145

I am a kitsch-man! Thirty years on, and it’s time to finally wrestle with the demon.  Sorry in advance, but those of you with an interest in kitsch are used to long-winded posts, I’m sure.

As an undergraduate, I wrote my thesis on “Kitsch in the Age of Mechanical Mass Production.”  My advisor loved it; my second reader said “I should just go and be angry,” and that it wasn’t enough of an art history thesis.  The chairman, following protocol when thesis reviewers disagreed strongly, knowing I was a refugee from the philosophy department, and trying to be helpful, gave it to the only philosopher in that coven of Anglo-American Empiricists who was interested in aesthetics, and he said it wasn’t enough of a philosophy thesis.  So much for inter-disciplinary thinking.  Well, I’m embarrassed to read it now anyway…


My interest in this topic was spurred by my encounter with the English version of this book by Gillo Dorfles while in high school.  It’s an anthology of materials on the topic of kitsch – I was fascinated to find that the stuff had a name!  I was particularly taken by the weighty Germanic metaphysical arguments of Herman Broch, especially when he posited kitsch as the anti-system to art.  I love rhetorical absolutes!  Seeing junk as part of an apocalyptic metaphysical wave, “vomiting over the entire world,” as one writer put it, I recall, appealed to my love of abstruse analytical reasoning and over-the-top ranting.  I adopted this point of view with gusto in my thesis, arguing that kitsch was not just a consequence of mass production society, but embodied its inner metaphysical principle.  Marx, Benjamin (obviously), Hegel, Adorno, Marcuse, Hauser, etc. etc…all grist for the mill.

At one point, I toyed with the idea of making the entire piece a philosophical meditation on the archetypal souvenir, the snow globe.  As Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man wrote…apropos of the falling snow…  Why do those things fascinate so?  The wonder of the miniature – a world in a world – a mini stage – the God-like perspective they confer on us – the urge to collect them?  What is it!

The dominant position on kitsch for much of the intelligentsia was for a long time Clement Greenburg’s essay, Kitsch and the Avant Garde.  He did soften his position against Academic Art in the end, but only a little.  (Academic art, art of the establishment against which the avant garde, e.g. the Impressionists, rebelled was often referred to as l’art pompier, or pompier art.  A pompier is a fireman, the late 19th century equivalent of our contemporary American Joe Sixpack, or the Hardhats of the 1970′s  I guess.)

Greenburg’s position is about as absolute as they come: He knows art, and so he knows what kitsch is. It’s the opposite of art.  Why did he get to decide on what is art?  Tom Wolfe asked the same question in The Painted Word written during the 70′s.  It’s a silly book, and Wolfe seems to think that whatever Greenburg wouldn’t have liked must be great art – a sort of anti-avant-gardism – so it really doesn’t clarify things.  Greenburg’s view leads to conceptualism in many ways, although he was foreshadowed by Marcel Duchamp who uttered the remark in the early 20th century that “retinal art” was on the way out.  (Was it he who said that the history of art was that of postage stamps?)

Sure, craft is important, I think, but that doesn’t mean that  someone who can draw well is a great artist anymore than a calligrapher is a great author.  Which leads me to my point, sort of…Why argue about what is ART and what isn’t?  Let’s just agree that art is what artists make, and artists are those whom society regards as makers of art.  Nicely circular – we’re not talking mathematics here.  The question to ask is, “Is this art interesting in any way?”  Thus, when I hear people in museums guffaw in front of stark white canvases and say, “This is art?” I think, “Yes, dear people, it is art, but it is very, very, boring art and I don’t blame you a bit for not wasting another second on it…”

Which leads us back to kitsch, which would never evoke that response.  It always seems to be art.  I would say, it is art, kitsch_cheesecakebut not very good art.  Why seek to cast it from the select club of Art – is it insecurity about the membership of those things we secretly admire?  (This is what some call “guilty pleasures” , I think.)  The critics of mass-cult from the 50′s and 60′s, e.g. Dwight McDonald seem to be simultaneously elitist snobs, weak-kneed inhabitants of the citadel of culture under siege by barbarians, and fanatic partisans issuing a frantic call to arms.  To agree with them is to feel a member of a noble but doomed fighting band of brothers, bound to go down fighting the armies kitsch.

Of course, this sort of highfalutin criticism pertains only to work that is shown in fancy galleries and museums.kitsch_jesus_king Nobody seems to entertain much doubt about works like this  masterpiece on velvet.  We all love to sneer at them.  Of course, if your seven year old child said he or she wanted it in their room would you tell them, “No, no, dear, nice people don’t have such things on their walls!”  “But Daddy,  I LIKE it..! ”  (Ah yes, “doesn’t know much about art, but knows what she likes”…Why is that taken as the acme of philistinism?  Isn’t the first step in appreciating art to know what you like?)  Another course would be to sigh and say yes, and hope that eventually the child’s tastes will develop and change.  And if they don’t, is there a moral stigma associated with it?  For avant-gardists, there is always.

This moralism in aesthetics of the anti-kitsch avant garde comes through in many ways.  Often it is deeply connected to sociological ideologies, such as the Marxist “false consciousness.”  How does one have false consciousness?  Isn’t one simply conscious…we hope?  One can be in error, but false consciousness implies a sort of drugged state of deception in which simple-minded people or superficially educated ones are lulled into averting their eyes from the nasty realities of economic exploitation by cultural manipulation.  There IS exploitation to be sure, but I’m not sure that people have a false consciousness about it as opposed to simply feeling that they can’t change it and therefore have no interest in the question…The highbrow avant-garde point of view is actually a variant on the eternal conspiracy theory mode of explanation, otherwise, of course, wouldn’t everyone just agree with us critics who see through it all?

And really, it’s hard for me to look at these classic pieces of kitsch and get all worked up about capitalist hegemony, culture of the dominant discourse, and the society of the spectacle.

kitsch_figurines snowglobe 03souvenir

I mean, it’s pretty harmless, and stupid at bottom, isn’t it?  And do we really care how people decorate their living rooms?  Must the personal always be political?  Maybe David Hume was right, taste is just a matter of experience and education.  We don’t have to pretend it doesn’t exist; we don’t have to surrender and say that everyone’s opinion is equal, but it is all relative in the end.  People who just don’t care about aesthetic sophistication just don’t care – let them like what they like and let’s not get snooty about it.  The world won’t end!


As for this sort of academic art,  this piece by the curator of the Dahesh museum in NYC quite nicely   kitsch_bougcupidpunctures the pretensions of the oh-so-pure critics of academic kitsch.  The discourse of kitsch critics is filled with assertions that kitsch does not present “real ideas,” or “genuine sentiments,” and that it is false, sentimental, too easy, too eager to please, too dependent on consumerism or the market, etc.  These vague criticisms simply reveal the prejudices of the writers and just about all of them could be leveled against revered works of art in all or part.  We paint with a pretty broad brush when we take this approach.

With the wall between art and mass-culture reduced to rubble long before the Berlin Wall, some people took umbrage against the puritan intellectualism, the cult of art, preached by the Greenburg-ites and his crew at The Partisan Review. Susan Sontag is among them, and her Notes on Camp was one of the early salvos in the internecine culture war of the intellectuals.  She has been followed by the avalanche of material culture studies. Let me go on the record:  I dislike Sontag, and I think her Notes is a piece of self-indulgent drivel.  There, I said it.  I am a snob as well as a kitschman!

Having trouble figuring out what I really think?  This kitsch business opens up so many cans of worms!  Let state it simply:

  • I believe we create rational hierarchies of values based on our ideas of value, but these hierarchies are relative.  If you reject my values, you reject my judgments.
  • There is no way around this.  The problem of taste and value is, at bottom, one variant on the question, “What is knowledge.”  I do not believe that absolute definitions exist, but neither do I think astrology is as good as astronomy!
  • The only way forward is to discuss, exchange ideas, argue, and test our ideas against one another’s.  To say, “Well, that’s just my taste,” is to end the discussion.  To assert that there is no way to build a bridge of common values between two differing critical systems.  Most of the time, this is just bunk.  On the other hand, in extreme cases, it may be just so.
  • Cross-genre judgments are hazardous.  Arguing that Goya is brilliant while Batman is junk is just stupid.  The aesthetic arenas within which these two exist are different.  First try and agree on whether or not Goya is a good painter, and Batman is a good comic.  Then evaluate the aims of comics vs. Romantic painting.  You may find out that it is pointless to try and compare the two.
  • Intellectuals and normal people should be open minded enough to enjoy “good” work from all sorts of genres.  Some call this “no-brow.”  To me it’s just the mark of an educated and liberal-minded person.

My rant is done…for now.

Diamond’s View

January 31, 2008


Such a changed France have we; and a changed Louis. Changed, truly; and further than thou yet seest!–To the eye of History many things, in that sick-room of Louis, are now visible, which to the Courtiers there present were invisible. For indeed it is well said, ‘in every object there is inexhaustible meaning; the eye sees in it what the eye brings means of seeing.’ To Newton and to Newton’s dog Diamond, what a different pair of Universes; while the painting on the optical retina of both was, most likely, the same! Let the Reader here, in this sick-room of Louis, endeavour to look with the mind too.

from A History of the French Revolution by Thomas Carlyle

Diamond was, according to legend, Sir Isaac Newton’s favorite dog, which, by upsetting a candle, set fire to manuscripts containing his notes on experiments conducted over the course of twenty years. According to one account, Newton is said to have exclaimed: “O Diamond, Diamond, thou little knowest the mischief thou hast done.”

from Wikipedia


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