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So it goes.

Newspapers and other sources have reported that Kurt Vonnegut Jr., 84, died Wednesday, as a result of brain injuries caused after a recent fall.

Kurt Vonnegut, the satirical novelist who captured the absurdity of war and questioned the advances of science in darkly humorous works such as “Slaughterhouse-Five” and “Cat's Cradle,” died Wednesday. He was 84.
[ s o u r c e ]

CNN put it under “SHOWBIZ” ... showbiz. Kurt Fucking Vonnegut Jr. under SHOWBIZ? That's like putting the death of Pheidippides, the Greek soldier who was sent from the town of Marathon to Athens, under “Sports.” Putting Hitler's crimes under “Law,” and so on.

The NY Times listed his obituary under “Books,” which is an improvement. Sure, you could say that CNN puts their book stuff, along with TV, movies, and music under “SHOWBIZ,” so it's nothing personal ... but note that it is capitalized SHOWBIZ ... where's f**king culture? Human endeavors? All about business, is it?

The NY Times writes:

Kurt Vonnegut, whose dark comic talent and urgent moral vision in novels like “Slaughterhouse-Five,” “Cat's Cradle” and “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater” caught the temper of his times and the imagination of a generation, died last night in Manhattan. He was 84 and had homes in Manhattan and in Sagaponack on Long Island.

I could say something about being (truly) missed, about being some sort of “icon,” etc. ... but that whole worn-out pseudo-meme doesn't cut it here, does it?

Kurt Vonnegut, picture taken from Wikipedia, photographer unknown

One of the interesting things to note, besides the fact that CNN considers Kurt Vonnegut worthy only of “showbiz,” is how the Times, technically a NY paper but read far and wide outside of that city, personalized matters by listing his NY homes (Mannhattan and Long Island). “See, he's one of us.”

My guilty not-so-secret is that Vonnegut is someone whose works I've planned on reading but never have, ever since high school, throughout college, and even during my graduate ”career.” And then he had to up and die.

Rather than write my own argument I'll just copy and paste a decent paragraph from the current Wikipedia page on Vonnegut about a 2005 interview in which he caused a minor tempest with some words about terrorists:

In 2005 Vonnegut was interviewed by David Neson for The Australian. During the course of the interview Vonnegut was asked his opinion of modern terrorists, to which he replied “I regard them as very brave people.” When pressed further Vonnegut also said that “They [suicide bombers] are dying for their own self-respect. It's a terrible thing to deprive someone of their self-respect. It's [like] your culture is nothing, your race is nothing, you're nothing ... It is sweet and noble—sweet and honourable I guess it is—to die for what you believe in.” (This last statement is a reference to the line “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” [“it is sweet and appropriate to die for your country”] from Horace's Odes, or possibly from Wilfred Owen's ironic use of the line in his Dulce Et Decorum Est.) David Neson took offense to Vonnegut's comments and characterized him as an old man who “doesn't want to live any more ... and because he can't find anything worthwhile to keep him alive, he finds defending terrorists somehow amusing.” Vonnegut's son, Dr. Mark Vonnegut responded to the article by writing an editorial to the Boston Globe in which he explained the reasons behind his father's “provocative posturing” and stated that “If these commentators can so badly misunderstand and underestimate an utterly unguarded English-speaking 83-year-old man with an extensive public record of exactly what he thinks, maybe we should worry about how well they understand an enemy they can't figure out what to call.”

I am tempted to launch into another discussion of grammaticalization and its reverse, especially metaphorical uses thereof, but yesterday after a chat with Joe on ish Angela and Tyler informed me that Joe isn't big on grammaticalization (as term, process, or theory), so I'll refrain from using it today. But I will jump to a comment about removing terms or phrases or quotes from a discourse and using them as singular objects. The ability to take something from one discourse and to transplant it, to re-integrate it somewhere else, is powerful and potentially revolutionary. This allows us both meta-discourses and the ability to work non-discursively, but far too often it's merely a refusal to see context and refusal to discuss when the supposed argument is not going your way. I am reminded of Walter in The Big Lebowski just interjecting “Shomer shabbos!”

Also from the NY Times obituary we have a comment about the firebombing of Dresden:

“The firebombing of Dresden,” Mr. Vonnegut wrote, “was a work of art.” It was, he added, “a tower of smoke and flame to commemorate the rage and heartbreak of so many who had had their lives warped or ruined by the indescribable greed and vanity and cruelty of Germany.”

This reminds me of a post-9/11 statement by Stockhausen that the 9/11 attacks were “das größte Kunstwerk, das es überhaupt gibt für den ganzen Kosmos.” Ra-ra-ra right-wingers jumped on the comment as something said by an America-hating European out-of-touch with reality. I can't speak to Stockhausen's sanity (and you can read his own partial response to the uproar), and others (e.g. What Kind of Tears? 9/11 and the Sublime by Vernon Hyde Minor) have tried to contextualize Stockhausen's remarks, but I'm more interested in the reaction from “the masses” and what it says about how many if not most still think of “the aesthetic.”

I won't bring up Kuhn and paradigms, per se, but there are a number of “revolutions” (Darwin's being a major one) that were partial at best; the fundamental shifts such revolutions promise are often not realized and only the superficial are. Perhaps this is a warning to be more careful in invoking Kuhn and the whole notion of “paradigms,” but I digress.

18th-century aesthetics, culminating in Kant in a way, provided something new in the philosophical discourse about art (well, in addition to really providing such a philosophical discourse!)—the separation of the aesthetic from the ethical; questions of good or evil were no longer necessarily relevant to questions of artistic merit. Even in the mid-late 18th century you still find critics arguing against works, especially dramatic works, because they portray bad behavior, as if this behavior then translates to the actions of the audience members. And this sort of critic has not gone away, for how many still argue that violence on TV (movies) translates to violent action, that increased sex on TV (movies) translates to more teen sex? And so on. These “arguments” about the goodness/badness of such works are made independent of psychological arguments (desensitization, etc.). There is no distinction made between an aesthetic level and an ethical level, and yet precisely this distinction was one the great innovations of 18th century aesthetics. Not to say that these realms have nothing to do with each other practically, but that as concepts, as realms of reason and thinking, they need to be considered as orthogonal. And yet we still have the problem of anything being called sublime or beautiful being valued as in some regard good; if that thing is not good, calling it beautiful or sublime is considered tasteless at best, and somehow the moral/ethical is still the judge of judgment.

One of the interesting things here, and it relates to Kant but also to Aquinas, is a notion of desire or of wanting, and in a sense handed down by Aquinas, a good person wants the good (this is a final cause provided by God). We are drawn to the good because, well, it's good. A corollary of sorts to Kant's continued division between the aesthetic and ethical is that we don't want the beautiful or the sublime in the same way as we want the good. The good is a rational desire, and it is part of a chain of events including (final) purpose. The radical thought by Kant was that what judgments about the beautiful (for example) possess is a lack of possession, a lack of desire to possess, own, consume, work toward an end or goal, and yet criticisms about such terrible events being beautiful or sublime often latch onto the antiquated notion (if we're going to be Kantian, and let's do so for a while) that by calling such a phenomenon beautiful or sublime that we actually want to have it or have it happen.

And perhaps this is not just the failed Kantian revolution in aesthetics at work but also both a broadening and softening of the beautiful and sublime both. Forgetting the “ungraspable” infinite of the sublime, we take it merely as grand, perhaps majestic, and with the beautiful it is merely perfected prettiness. Yet contemporary fiction has not forgotten that the beautiful can be not only bad for you (example: rainbow reflections off oil slicks, pretty or even beautiful ... oil slicks or spills ... not good), but also terrifying, a notion seen recently in Donna Tartt's The Secret History as well as Peter Jackson's Fellowship of the Ring (when Frodo offers the ring to Galadriel), and in the first Harry Potter book and movie. For as Ollivander (played marvelously by John Hurt in the movie) tells Harry:

“Yes, thirteen-and-a-half inches. Yew. Curious indeed how these things happen. The wand chooses the wizard, remember.... I think we must expect great things from you, Mr. Potter.... After all, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named did great things—terrible, yes, but great.”

So it goes.

— April 12 2007