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I’ll Remove the Cause ...

... but not the symptom.

Books, movies, and fundies. My day in review.

Say this for Mr. Koontz: he is skillful in ways that make “Velocity” live up to its title, and nobody will ever accuse him of formulaic writing. He starts this book with a death by garden gnome. (“The gnome was made of concrete. Henry wasn't.”)

On Monday I got up late due to having been up late the night before at the computer ... doing whatever it was I was doing at the computer. I went in before noon to the department because I needed to print out some forms for the Humboldt-Universität and I wanted to check my mail. I ended up getting side-tracked and thus did not leave until nearly 3pm.

In my office I sat around and chatted with Andrea about L’Auberge espagnole (2002), which was brought up in discussion last Tuesday night and which I watched over the weekend. While at Antje’s place for the picnic/party last Tuesday comments were made about the feel of the co-op; in short, were I to find a dorm (or similar) in Berlin of that nature, it would be tempting, but realizing how things actually are, I will probably just go for an apartment. Discussion turned to L’Auberge espagnole, which brought back memories for people who had done study abroad programs; it further reminded other people of Erasmus students they had met. In short: the film is considered, by many, to be spot-on in its depiction(s).

User comments (to the movie and in the forum) at the IMDB tend to back up that perception, but what is obvious in the film but less commented upon by those so eager to see themselves and their experiences in the movie is the way in which the movie acts both as an allegory as well as a critique of the EU. The movie ends where it begins, so the narrator—in different words—tells us at the beginning: in a ministry office discussing a ministry job. The order and bureaucracy of the EU and of middle class society in general is contrasted with the student life in Barcelona and its chaos, contradictions, and even crises.

Months ago I watched Euro Trip, the type of film with which Americans who have traveled but not studied abroad are more likely to identify. To an extent that is sad; Euro Trip revels in its ignorant stereotypes and plays them all for laughs; L’Auberge espagnole plays with its stereotypes for laughs. That having been said, Euro Trip has a few brilliant moments, such as the Parisian mime-fight, as well as the slightly more intertextual type-castings—Lucy Lawless as Madame Vandersexxx and Vinnie Jones as Mad Maynard. As is typical for this type of teen flick, it was rated R for language and nudity, but the nudity only involved less marketable actors and not the more well-known actors used to draw people to the movie in the first place.

Hollywood has been remaking foreign films at such a frantic pace recently that one almost expects a Hollywood remake of L’Auberge espagnole. If they do decide to go that pointless route, might I recommend Topher Grace (That 70s Show, In Good Company) for the role of Xavier? His character from That 70s Show is a good match for the clueless, almost nerdy, bumbling Xavier, whereas he plays Dennis Quaid’s boss in In Good Company, making him a good fit for the role of a potential ministry employee and bureaucrat.

8. An end to the defensive three-second rule.

It didn’t kill the college game to have Hakim Warrick locked into the paint, why should it hurt the pros? If a team wants to anchor its center in the paint, that means the other team has to find a way to counter; that means more strategy. Strategy is good. And, as an added bonus, we'd see more people dunking over Shawn Bradley, which is also good.
   [ source ]

All-in-all Chris Ballard’s story is just a well-hyped blog entry, and its suggestions are silly, which is, I suspect, the point. It is an entertaining exercise in what if? thinking: the 4-point shot, no back-court charges, 40-second timeouts, instant replay, sudden-death after two overtimes, etc. Many or most of the suggestions are taken from or modeled on elements of other sporting events (e.g. sudden-death and instant replay). For some reason, however, I was particularly amused by the three-second rule suggestion, probably because of the Shawn Bradley reference.

Back to Monday: after chatting with Andrea, Susan, Katerina, and others in the department I went to talk with Mike and Adam for a bit, and in the process ended up talking to Hans for a while, first about housing possibilities in Berlin, and then about secondary literature and other things I have read, some of which might be useful to him in his work, such as Michael Hawkin’s Hunting Down the Universe. Several laughs later, as well as after a call by Hans Feger and Sabine’s entrapment in the elevator (or rather: failure to get off at the right floor and thus several minute journey back to the 8th floor), I managed to pack up my things and head down to the library.

I went in to pick up four books by Gernot Böhme, but ended up walking out with two by the German author, and eleven others on Aristotle, postmodernism, and aesthetics. I left two others behind after sitting down and taking copious notes.

For some reason I had not before taken note of Terry Eagleton’s The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Basil Blackwell: Oxford, 1990). Our projects are different:

My argument, broadly speaking, is that the category of the aesthetic assumes the importance it does in modern Europe because in speaking of art it speaks of these other matters too, which are at the heart of the middle class’ struggle for politcal hegemony. (3)

Eagleton instrumentalizes and subsumes aesthetics for and to political discourse, and his analysis seems cogent. He begins with a fluid and insightful analysis of early aesthetics as understood by Baumgarten, but quickly passes to the 19th century. In his introduction he admits that his is a Marxist study and perspective, as well as one tied to New Historicism; he further points out that any work with ties to New Historicism needs at least one mutilated body, which helps to explain his interest in the body and bodily (informed as well by Foucault and company).

I did not check out Eagleton’s book; I will read through it again later. I did, however, check out a slender 1980 volume by Joachim Krueger entitled Christian Wolff und die Ästhetik (Wissenschaftliche Schriftenreihe der Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin). I was somewhat surprised to find this book; in fact, I came across it quite by accident, for I wanted to look at B 2798, but by mistake looked at B 2728, which is the section on Wolff. Whenever I find such a work I get a bit defensive—has a previous author already done my work?—so I always flip through the chapters and indices to make sure my topics and questions are not covered, at least not in too much detail. It appears that this volume will be of great use, for it provides, although in a rather fractured manner, a bibliography of sorts on Wolf-related scholarship up to 1980. Furthermore there is a section on Wolff’s views on similarity (Ähnlichkeit), specifically with regard to Witz and Scharfsinn. There is furthermore a comparison between Wolff and his student Baumgarten; this is a section that I will essentially be rewriting/reanalyzing for my own purposes, I suspect.

After 5pm I left the library, went to the Mediterranean Cafe for a lamb and beef sandwich, and decided against stopping by either Steep & Brew or Fair Trade for a drink and a pastry. I came home, put down my bag, and found a message from Corina on the phone; she needed someone to read over her conclusion to her dissertation, so I called her and she came over a while later. I read the text, made some corrections and suggestions, and then managed to bombard my captive audience with an analysis of Leibniz and the issue of finite versus infinite recursion.

This morning I got up late again, as usual, had a small breakfast, and took an early afternoon bus out to Woodman’s so I could pick up a few items for cooking. I called it my fat-trip: cheese, butter, and vegetable oil. I made the mistake of buying some dried fruit; I eat it far too quickly for it is far too tasty. Dried banana chips, dried apricots, and even dried apples (the latter being ShurFine brand and cheap).

I got back on the bus. A man who had walked by me and said hi a few minutes earlier at the transfer point got on and showed the bus driver a transfer; the bus driver took it and told him it was invalid. The man continued to plead his case, but as far as I could tell he had no case: the transfer was dated two days ago. Furthermore he claimed to be transferring from the #6, which does not come close to the East Transfer Point; he would have had to have walked several miles from East Towne Mall (unless he had walked from East Washington Ave., which, due to the direction, would have invalidated the transfer as well). The driver, however, did not get angry or raise his voice, even though the guy was so transparently trying to scam him; he just said he was sorry, this one was no good, and perhaps he had a valid transfer in his pocket and had picked the wrong, old one ... that is, the driver used the proper social and customer skills to defuse the situation.

The other man got off the bus and walked away dejected.

At the corner of State Street and the Capitol Square Bill F., whom I know from the LUG, got on, saw me, and sat next to me and chatted until I got off two blocks later. Small world. He had come via the #6 from the mall, but took it back to the Square, where he transferred (validly).

In place of the old Radio Shack at the corner of Johnson and State/Henry one of the local television stations has put a little outpost. I walked across Johnson and past Stillwaters. Outside at a table a television crew was set up. I glanced a the table and asked myself why they were there. I did not let them distract me and walked behind the newscaster, who asked, “Are we live?”—she got a positive answer as soon as I was behind her. I then recognized the person having lunch as Mayor Dave. Small world.

I came home and put groceries away. I had to buy butter so I could make banana bread; I used the last of my butter last Tuesday while making cornbread and bread pudding for the picnic. 2 pounds should last a few weeks. Perhaps.

I went in to the department last Friday as well, before heading to the terrace for Happy Hour and the Lakefront Cafe for a LUG meeting. While reading a story on /. I found a link to the supposed transcript of a documentary called The Power of Nightmares on the topic of Islamists and the neoconservatives in the U.S., and their shared origins.

I remain unconvinced in a sense; it is the skeptic in me that questions anything I find on an “independent media souce” that is “[o]ne person’s effort to correct the distorted perceptions provided by commercial media.” The author of the site claims that he is not affiliated with a particular political party, that he is a private individual who pays for all services himself, but who is not independently wealthy, and that no groups fund him. This is a claim for objectivity, but what it also does is in a sense make him meaningless; he clearly has a perspective, but I cannot relate to it because he has torn himself away from anything to which I could relate. It is an interesting problem.

Elements of the site lean too strongly toward conspiracy-theory mode and scream PARANOIA! but enough legitimate materials are there to at least make it interesting. The transcript to which I linked is interesting in its own right and appears to actually be from a documentary that aired on the BBC in three parts.

There is a sense in which the neoconservatives represent post-postmodernism and an attempt to return to master narratives, more for their meaningfulness than for their truth value.

I was inspired by Karen Armstrong’s lecture last fall, which I attended with Jyoti. The main thrust of her history of fundamentalism was a typology centered around negative experiences with modernism. Whereas, she claimed, many of us experienced modernism, The Enlightenment, etc. in a positive sense as independence and innovation, people who tend(ed) toward fundamentalism experienced it as dependence and imitation. She cited the effects of colonialism and post-colonialism in the Middle East, though many developing nations might also fit the profile, as well as the rise of fundamentalism among christians in the U.S. Ultra-Orthodox Jews make up her third group, though her analysis supposedly fits other religious communities, and is based on other research she has done. In all cases, she claimed, those who retreated to fundamentalism had negative encounters with what we might call liberalism or modernism, and the first step is to retreat to a sacred place; one notes, for example, how christian fundamentalists, once tied to early 20th-century progressive movements, went underground and only surfaced again decades later. The retreat of the Ultra-Orthodox into their own private communities is another example, she claims. Later such groups tend to return to culture as a whole, often with a somewhat missionary purpose. Very rarely do they become violent.

Three other main points of her talk are worth mentioning: the focus of a particular fundamentalism, fundamentalism’s relationship to modernity, and the problem with traditional strategies of fighting fundamentalism. Armstrong claimed that the way that a fundamentalism would try to interact in society is tied to its negative experience with modernity. Thus we see that christian fundamentalists saw their faith as threatened and they tend to now pursue faith/dogma-oriented goals. Likewise if most islamic fundamentalism is tied to political repression, we should expect that its goals are mostly political. This is useful is in explaining why in the past christian fundamentalists were linked with progressive causes but are now tied to regressive theological issues; likewise one should, if one accepts Armstrong’s analysis, be suspicious of those who frame the conflict with islamic fundamentalists as a religious showdown. The irony of fundamentalism is that it is not particularly traditional or conservative; rather, it is radical, and could only be made possible through modernism. For example: the emphasis christian fundamentalists place on literal readings of the bible on the one hand flies in the face of tradition and is only made possible by easy access to bibles and the existence of a literate public on the other. The means and instruments of modernism make fundamentalism possible. At the same time, despite the ways in which fundamentalists rely on the modern world their negative interactions with it result(ed) in fear. The process of directly attacking them (by mocking their faith in one example, or by bombing them in another) only confirms their fears and makes them either more resolute or likely to retreat and fester. While there is an overlap between terrorists and fundamentalists, the groups are not identical. Bombing terrorists may or may not reduce the number of terrorists out there, but it surely will not solve the problem of fundamentalism.

While Armstrong focuses on similarities between the three major mono-theistic faiths from the Middle East, the above-mentioned documentary sought to find parallels between Straussian-inspired neoconservatives and Islamists, tracing both back to the US of the 1950s and bringing them together again in the early 80s in Afghanistan, for example. The analysis is fascinating, though it does not mix well with Armstrong’s approach, though then again, no one should expect it to.

What seems particularly disturbing is the mixture of circular-reasoning, ends-justify-the-means neocons with an ignorant End-of-Days oriented president like Bush Jr.—the worst of both worlds and the type of farcical situation one would perhaps expect in a Kubrick movie but not in real life.

On the bus home today I finished Ken Macleod’s novel Cosmonaut Keep. More than a year ago Sebastien lent me The Stone Canal, which I found entertaining but poorly paced. It had two narrative strands: one now and one then that featured some overlapping characters, meaning that as a reader you knew they would at some point intersect. The Stone Canal was one book in a series, but I never got around to looking at the other entries. Cosmonaut Keep was brought up in discussion with Sebastien, Heather, and Hal while at Espresso Royale a few months back. They discussed it and laughed; from their interaction I would have thought that the series was 1) a comedy and 2) a graphic novel. Instead it is rather serious Sci-Fi. When we went over to Hal’s place to watch the new Doctor Who Hal lent me all three books. I only got around to reading Cosmonaut Keep while on the bus, so it took a while to finish.

Like The Stone Canal this novel featured two narrative strands (one past, one present; or one future, and one far future) as well as plenty of political discourse, though here it was, seemingly, less serious than in the former novel. One reviewer on Amazon.com stated:

At about this point, I had a sense of deja vu. Hadn’t I come across a similar scenario in another book? My memory provided the answer. It was a book called “The Sky Road”, written also by Ken MacLeod [...] In that book also, humanity had lost the secret of interstellar travel and a group of people were trying to rediscover it [...] The story jumps about three centuries back in time and we meet Matt Cairns (an ancestor of Gregor) and Jadey, an American girl living as an illegal alien in England. The speaking voice also changes from third person to first person (Matt). The story then moves in alternate chapters about Matt and Gregor. My sense of deja vu peaked. Weren—t these self-same plot devices used in The Sky Road? Yes, they were.

Someone else pointed out that it was an interesting mixture of (post)cyberpunk with world-building. I can only agree. Especially in the “present” narrative the language finds moments where it is almost palpable; in the other strand the narrative is clear, but the language is too mundane. In the former storyline a number of witty pop-culture references make their way into the dialogue and elsewhere, such as comments about DOS, Linux, and Slashdot, among others.

When the PMLA dedicated a special issue to Sci-Fi the editors bemoaned the limited space they had been allotted to cover such a broad an interesting field. The way in which Sci-Fi has been banished to the genre-fiction ghetto is regrettable for a number of reasons. It limits serious discussion about so-called Sci-Fi, and it also causes literary writers, whose works either border on or sometimes are Sci-Fi to deny it, as has been the case with Margaret Atwood. Sheri Tepper prefers the term speculative fiction, which on the one hand is an accurate description, because there is often little science in her fiction, but at the same time it is an attempt to remind readers that she is not writing about rocket ships, blasters, and little green aliens (well, usually). That is to say, speculative fiction is to Sci-Fi as graphic novels are to comics—a new name to the same thing, in such a way that they can be taken seriously as Art.

Contemporary Science Fiction, however, is in some regards one of the brightest spots in contemporary narrative fiction, and to an extent has been ever since the New Wave and—later—Cyberpunk. A number of Cyberpunk authors and proto-Cyberpunk authors, such as P.K. Dick, were mediocre stylists—they had ideas. Writers like Zelazny, however, had literary credentials as well as ideas. The same can be said, somewhat, of writers like Tad Williams and Neal Stephenson (even though the former often writes so-called fantasy). When a work of modern literary fiction is praised for dealing with issues of memory, issues of media, issues of gender, what it means to be human (in our [post]modern society), or what technology means to the human condition, many of us who read speculative fiction merely nod our heads approvingly and comment under our breath that some serious Sci-Fi writer already dealt with the topic, probably in a more serious fashion. That is what the genre ghetto can do for you.

To conclude with more pop-culture linkage:

—May 24 2005