Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Greeks - H.D.F. Kitto

Upon re-reading Kitto's classic work, what struck me the most, this time, was the extent to which the Greeks viewed life and the world holistically. Seeing oneself, not as an isolated entity, but as part of a greater system, both socially and cosmically, informed much concerning how the Greeks situated themselves within the world. Particulars of men and actions were seen to be larger universals made manifest in the world. As such, nothing, not even the actions of people, could be said to be wholly capricious. The strength of this perspective is that it pushes for broad and integrative thinking. Perhaps the failure is a tendency to impose a certain type of order where one may not exist.

With all of reality a unity much of the lessons passed down from the Greeks take on a different tenor. Kitto tells us that, in the early days of Classical Greece, it was thought that one could literally know all that was needed from Homer. This is not because the Greeks simply strove to blindly ape some elusive Homeric ideal. Rather, it is the belief that Homer spoke to unalterable universals in the human condition, and gave example of how to meaningfully address them, that his influence was so broad and deep. The Illiad, Kitto writes, is not simply the story of a ten-year battle by King Agamemnon and his allies to overthrow Prium's city and stronghold - if it were, there would be little insight to be gained more broadly. What is crucial about Homer's work is that it demonstrates how the willfulness, stubbornness and arrogance of men can bring about the downfall of thousands and transform the world. It is the quarrel of Achilles and Agamemnon which gives the work its most moral thrust. It is from the resulting fallout of this exchange that men were meant to learn what it means to live in this world.

The delicate balance of the particular and the universal was first achieved in the West by the Greeks (at least in the literate sphere). Their impact on Western society, and indeed, the World, can never be measured or fully fathomed. What occured in the Peloponnese from 480bce-340bce rings throughout history. For better or worse we are all children of the Greeks.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Meaning of Evolution - Robert Richards

Charles Darwin, has, in death, become somewhat a victim of his own success. So argues Robert Richards in The Meaning of Evolution. Because of the central role that evolutionary thinking has played in the development of the life sciences over the past one hundred and fifty years, Richards tells us that too many scholars retroactively impose latter-day understandings onto Darwin's thinking on evolution. Authorities no less than Gould have read Darwin's work in a neo-Darwinian light; thus marginalizing the historicity of Darwin's scientific thinking and his situatedness within a developing scientific community.

While the evolutionary thinking of Darwin may strike us as a bolt of lightning from the sky, Richards shows us the critical import of properly placing Darwin within his own time. Acknowledging the great man's place within a scientific community, among such laudable peers as Huxley, Owen and Hooker, the reader is given Charles Darwin as a man growing and learning and responding to itself an evolving corpus of scientific thought. Understanding the formative role of this corpus and these other men is crucial because it allows the reader to properly place Darwin's thinking; coloring and fleshing out his insights.

Of course, this also means acknowledging where Darwin went wrong. Though Richards clearly holds the resident of Down House in the highest regard (as is due to him), he does not shy away from highlighting Darwin's mistakes and the shortcomings in his theories. In this slim work Richards has turned the nifty trick of presenting Darwin's thinking with nuance and critique while acknowledging the crucial role that even Darwin's misguided understandings played in the formation of his greatest works. This is no mean feet. Anyone interested in better understanding the thoughts of this titanic figure of Western thought, is well served by Richards work.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Aias - Sophocles

How does a man reconcile what he knows to be true, his values, that by which he has ordered his life, with a changing world? When we are ill-served, or unable to meet a certain situation, the modern tendency is to deride the individual, and call for greater flexibility and acceptance of circumstance. So inseparable is such a belief from our varying modern ethos, that it hardly goes remarked upon. Such a position assumes much about the world, about progress, even about the teleology of men and women.

Homer called Aias (the Greek for Ajax) the "bulwark of the Acheans" a towering and imposing warrior of great ferocity and unbending will. Amongst the Greek soldiers, Aias was second in fame and greatness only to Achilles, and would contest (and eventually befriend) Hektor, butt heads with Agamemnon and deride Odysseus. Every Greek watching Sophocles' tragedy would have known how the story ends: with Aias' eventual suicide; one of the few (masculine, honorable) self-destructions in all of classical antiquity. As such, Aias is a noteworthy, and even remarkable hero. Stolid in the face of divergent opinion, perhaps even to the point of pigheadedness, Aias, more that perhaps any other Homeric character, represents a bygone age of grand and terrible warrior chieftains. Eclipsed by the age of the polis, such heroes were, by the time of Sophocles, largely relegated to myth - or, marginalized as barbarians beyond the bounds and bonds of the civilized world.

Sophocles takes, what many Greeks may have considered a dim-witted personage, and transforms him into a far-seeing beacon of extinct days. Everything Aias does in this play, every word he speaks, every action he commits, is seen as unfit for the moment - either tragedy or lawless destruction. Yet, he is prized above all others. Held entirely blameless before, during and after his crimes and suicide. How are we to reconcile such seeming conflict? Sophocles provides no answers. Rather, he leaves us to ponder even greater questions. How are we to know what is right and wrong when we interact with our fellow man? What about with the world? Aias sees a world that is all change: seasons come and go, the sun rises and sets, man glows brilliantly and is extinguished. He only will stay true to course; to honor and what he has been taught is right. Uncompromising: he lives and dies as only he sees fit. Aias is unable and unwilling to change with the world. He would perhaps say that he is unwilling to be rendered basal by the thieves and turncoats, the greedy and lecherous surrounding him. We cannot say for sure. He is undoubtedly a man of great violence: in many ways. He will be praised for his vision of the world, and, more crucially, his role within it: bulwark of the Acheans, unbent and unbowed.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Theban Plays - Sophocles

Fifth century bce Greece was, perhaps, one of the most important single centuries in the history of western civilization. In a scant one hundred years, Athens was transformed from little more than a trading town, to the power in the Mediterranean. While the city's might was constantly being challenged, what remains unquestioned was the extent to which thought - the progression of the western intellectual life - was to be set upon on a course that we can see around us every single day. As such, Athens, and the Greek world at large, was a place in transition. Gone would be the old kingdom and confederations of tribes. In their place would rise the polis, the Greek city-state, and with it, the first widespread experiments in democracy. Citizens saw the changes around them and many intuited that they were living in a world that was being drastically changed.

Few understood the resulting conflicts between old ways of being and new ways of living and organizing one's life than Sophocles. His Theban Plays (King Oedipus, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone) are about precisely how people make sense of conflicting social and moral ideals of right and wrong, good and bad, duty and honor. How is Creon to treat the burial of Polydices? To whom does he primarily owe allegiance? What is his role as sovereign and as a family man?

At its core, of course, Sophocles' work is that of tragedy and, at this remove, we know that none of this will end well. For his characters are bound down by their circumstances and an inability to escape what the gods have decreed must come to pass. All that is certain is that man is fated to die. Other than that each can only put himself in the hands of the gods and to act right as the situation dictates. We cannot escape who we are: truly a timely message for a society going through epochal transformation. It is a testament to Sophocles' insight into the human condition that his message hardly seems dated.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

After Virtue - Alasdair MacIntyre

We are stuck in a world with no manner of reconciling competing moralities.  The work of Enlightenment philosophers, and the subsequent rise of liberal individualist society has transformed morality from a state of order to one of disorder. Alasdair MacIntyre identifies this shortcoming of the modern condition and seeks to explore both how we got here and how a fulsome appraisal of western philosophical /moral history can inform us on potential paths forward. For MacIntyre philosophy and sociology must go hand-in-hand. How can we adequately describe a social context without examining the tenets upon which it is founded? Conversely, how can we adequately investigate and/or criticize a moral or philosophical system without an awareness of what history and world it arose in response to? We do ourselves and the moralities we investigate a disservice in our attempts to sever them from the world.

Looking across the broader currents of the western philosophical tradition, MacIntyre contextualizes when, where, and in response to what our moralities have been founded, and how our modern logos is a palimpsest of our intellectual traditions. Venturing back to the Illiad and Homeric notions of the hero, MacIntyre clearly demonstrates the extent to which moral systems were inextricably entangled in relationships and duties of the social sphere. Moving through to the days of Athenian democracy, he shows how morality became extended beyond bonds of kinship, to the polis writ large. Of course, the fact that Attica contained numerous city-states meant that morality had to lose some of its absolute claims: for acting rightly in one city may mean something different than acting rightly in another. Here MacIntyre focuses in on the ethics of Aristotle (most thoroughly discussed are the ideas contained in the Nicomachean Ethics), claiming that it was largely an Aristotelian morality that would be carried through into the Middle Ages, only to be rejected by the Enlightenment. What is crucial to his Aristotelian sympathy is the notion of the telos, that man's life is both an enacted, and situated within, larger cohesive narrative(s). Whereas the liberal individualist account isolates each person into their own world, ostensibly claiming that our freedom also means being totally set-adrift from others, teleology places us along a path whereby our morality - as well as our struggles and efforts - are moving us toward something. For MacIntyre that something is the further development of what it means for each of us to be human. This is accomplished through, and in respect to, the exercise of the properly required virtue for any situation.

An inescapable conclusion of MacIntyre's is that any morality presupposes a sociology. No ethereal plane of Forms for this man. This also entails that a morality presupposes a history. MacIntyre thus has little use for the modern fact-moral distinction. Our morality cannot be separated from the world we inhabit. Likewise, our morality will shape our actions and thus the world around us. An awareness that these two spheres are not separate, that they feed into and co-create one another, opens up the possibility for a new way forward, whereby our moral concerns can be re-grounded in the world, and our lives can begin to embody the morality we never lost in the first place.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Five Senses - Michel Serres

"The soul resides at the point where the I is decided." 

Who we are, and how we understand the world, is intimately bound up in our experiences of it. While life moves forward, in the creative novelty of the moment, we try to make sense of such radical difference. To do so we create theories and labels, give names to things, impose rigid identities on all aspects of phenomena (at least the ones we accept in the first place). Our main form of communicating the world to one another, to make sense of changes over time, to reconcile differences into knowable, understandable, apt for analysis, entities, is through our language. This language, must, by-necessity, rely upon our created labels as the avenue of communication. Michel Serres has a problem with this, and thinks that, as we have become overcome with language, we are ignoring crucial aspects, not just of reality, but of ourselves.

For Serres, our world has become overrun with language. By prizing this type of knowing and communicating, at the expense of others, he believes that we have lost touch with so much human-ness. The Five Senses: a philosophy of mingled bodies (I) seeks to alert the reader to all the different ways we know through our body's unique and evolving interactions with the world around us. Serres posits that there is much of the world that we have forgotten to touch, taste, smell and feel, and, thus, our understanding of it is more limited than need be. Our reliance upon language means a focus on that which is knowable in the most conventional (read: western) sense. This relies upon a fixed definition of identity, and upon a parsing of the minutiae of experience. Science excels at such a parsing; this is not meant as a denigration. What is problematic is when we begin to assume one right way of knowing, thus remaining willfully ignorant of so much else. No matter how fine-tooth our comb, the world remains a tangled and uncertain place. Simplifying it yields a certain type of truth only.

Rather than being made up of discrete and easily isolated entities, the world is, Serres writes, a tangled multiplicity. And we are a part of it. Just as a system must be investigated to speak meaningfully of the interactions therein, we are both the result of our placement, and our actions and interactions within, and as a part of, the world around us. Understanding what that means - knowing how to paint a more fulsome picture of ourselves - requires that we do not simply approach the world through the medium of language. We constantly transcend ourselves and our definitions, so too does the world. Life at the edge of creative novelty requires that we employ all of our faculties to know. We have forgotten many of them, and, in the process, made ourselves and our world more static; more dominated by stagnant identity. The result, is death.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

A Little History of the World - E.H. Gombrich

A brisk affair, A Little History of the World traces the developments and crucial narratives of how the western world came to be. Seemingly written for a latter grade school audience, Gombrich's work is satisfying reading for anyone interested in the broader currents of history. Here the reader can see how the evolution of the Roman Empire impacted the settlement of feudal Europe, or why the Middle Ages can be accurately described as an interlude most analogous to a starry night. Though Gombrich does not shy away from making moral judgments (perhaps they are more like suggestions) about the actions of past actors, such commentary reads less as a modern imposition, and more as a way of drawing the reader in and making him or her think critically. Throughout Gombrich remains aware of the people and the time that he is writing for. Rather than marginalizing his history's power, it makes even the broadest scope that much more human.

By balancing a broad and sweeping scale with an attention to illuminating details, Gombrich has achieved a neat trick of pulling the reader into the minutiae of historical scenes while still retaining a fidelity to broader context. Though more broadly read historians could (rightly) criticize him for simplifying numerous complexities, Gombrich's emphasis is as crystal clear as it is necessary: to provide an overview of the palimpsest of the west, so that younger readers might take an interest in how their world has grown and changed. The young at heart, and flexible in mind of all ages will find much to recommend this work.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Malfeasance - Michel Serres

Michel Serres has written a slim volume meandering around his thoughts about our pollution, and how we tacitly and overtly use it to claim the world. His position is that waste, refuse, in other words, death, is the foundation upon which we claim space, both physical and mental. Once a zone has been demarcated, it is a space of exclusion, of a certain identity, value, or role, at the expense of a multitude of possibilities. While certain waste is an inevitable by-product of our very beastly-ness, Serres recognizes that we pollute all of our senses in a way that is remarkable in human (planetary?) history. My vision is obscured by advertisements along the road, while simultaneously my ears are overrun by the sound of an airplane. This type of soft pollution, Serres writes, is the by-product of us having become a soft people. Largely removed from the practical business of survival, we live in a soft world of words and ideas and concepts which we mobilize. In essence even our labors are, so we conceive, removed from tangibility of the physical.

But, Serres also points out, a thing within no-place has a dubious existence, and our concepts, ideas etc do yield physical outcomes. We require space to live, and this means that we dis-place, we appropriate more and more. Rather than think about an ownership of the world (an idea that Serres believes as outlived its usefulness) we must think of ourselves as lessors of it, as renters, responsible for its safe passage into the future. A zone of exclusion leads to wantonness, whereas one of mutual responsibility and temporary residence, yields, potentially, a respect how one's impact will last. Our social compacts reach into the world, in many cases, over-power it. Our compact must respect that we are situated within the world, and that we have become a global force. Our pollution now knows no bounds, which, inevitably, means that we ourselves cannot escape it.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A Primate's Memoir - Robert Sapolsky

What comes across most in Robert Sapolsky's memoir of his time living with "his" baboon troop in Kenya, is the level to which he cares for his study subjects. As he ages Sapolsky becomes more at-peace with the idea that his care for these primates is not going to undermine his ability to contribute meaningful scientific insight. Rather, it is because he knows these primates so well, because he puzzles over them and worries about their well-being that he can reflect on the deeper aspects of what he observes. Does Sapolsky project? Of course - but his insight seems the stronger for it.

Interspersed with reflections gleaned from traveling across East Africa in the 1970s and 1980s, A Primate's Memoir is, truly, mostly about baboons. How they spend their lives. How they live and love and grow and die. While interweaving observations from his own life with those of the baboons gives a stronger feeling of kinship to Sapolsky's subjects, it also provides the reader with a localized, and thus fairly novel, insight into a changing African landscape of ecosystems and cultures.

Throughout Sapolsky does mercifully little soap-boxing - and when he does it seems eminently forgivable. By remaining introspective and self-deprecating, Sapolsky transparently exploits his own foibles and shortcomings. His wit and awareness make this work at turns humorous and heartbreaking, light and morose. Sapolsky has pulled off the neat trick of conveying his depth of care and appreciation for this one corner of the natural world, and the need for conservation, without sounding preachy or condescending to the unlettered audience. A fine read for anyone passionate about field work, conservation, or how we find our place in a complicated world when the answers are far from straightforward.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power - Robert Caro

Robert Caro's fourth installment of his life's work documenting the years of Lyndon Johnson, The Passage of Power, details how LBJ, unable to overcome some of his most deeply-rooted demons, was unable to grab for the presidency when it might have been his. Eventually receiving second-billing on the Kennedy ticket, Johnson was seemingly ushered off the stage of history, relegated to a ceremonial bystander while "the best and the brightest" governed America. But, as of course we now know, this was not to be Lyndon Johnson's political obituary. With the crack of an assassins bullet that fateful morning in Dallas, the power Johnson had so long striven for, "by God, I'll be President someday," was suddenly thrust upon him. What Johnson did then, was, in Caro's detailed recounting, nothing short of unequaled in the history of the American republic. In a moment of supreme national agony, Johnson not only ably and with great command grasped the reins of power, but simultaneously assured the smooth transition of government, engineered the passage of monumental domestic legislation, and all but assured his re-election in a Presidential contest less than a year hence. While Johnson's three years as Vice-President may have been pure personal torture, his first seven weeks in office redound as perhaps his greatest personal triumph.

Caro has painstakingly researched the life and years of Lyndon Johnson to such an extent that we cannot help but wonder if another biography of the man and his times will ever be necessary. Throughout the four (soon-to-be five) works he has maintained a coherency of narrative allowing the reader (at least those willing to venture through 3,000-plus pages already published) to connect Johnson's strengths as a leader and man of vision, with the deeply rooted convictions bred in him from the his youth in the Texas Hill Country. What is more awe-inspiring, and perhaps more tenuous, is how Caro allows his audience to see, and to feel, LBJ's monumental insecurities, which, though he may have been able to overcome them in his first weeks as President, cannot help but loom as a grim specter over this volume. For if Lyndon B. Johnson's first days as President redound to his credit, and can be seen as a momentous capstone to a life dedicated to the pursuit of political power, then the reader cannot help but sense the extent to which the next (and final) volume, due out in two or three years, will fully detail how Johnson's weaknesses (as well as his strengths), of character, of upbringing, will conspire with events beyond his control to derail his long-held ambitions. In the end, Johnson's story cannot but be one of tragedy, pure and simple.

Tragedy requires that, for those with eyes to see, the writing is on the wall: it is only with an inevitable sense of impending doom that any tragedy is deserving of the title. We can begin to see here that the seeds for Johnson's destruction were sown in his earliest days. From The Path to Power up through this latest installment, Johnson's character has at once been his greatest strength, and his own worst enemy. What has been inescapable throughout has been LBJ's inability to moderate himself for any extended stretch of time; his seeming unwillingness to recognize that he can be his own worst enemy. When Caro describes Johnson's first weeks as President as so successful despite the man's shortcomings, the reader knows exactly what is meant. Now it is up to Caro, long after the death of this towering figure, to truly complete his story. In his research and writings Caro's work has become the definitive voice on the Years of Lyndon Johnson, and we can now begin to fully understand that those years cannot adequately be measured, our assessment of Johnson as man and as a political, as well as historical figure, not fully understood, until Caro has written his final line. For now, the last bit of Johnson's legacy still remains undisclosed and untold. Only Caro can achieve such an ending. It is the historian who will have the final word.
We wait with baited breath.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods - Bruno Latour

Still engaged in uncovering what he calls the anthropology of the Moderns, Bruno Latour interrogates the differences, and strange similarities between science and religion. Resulting from his investigation is the conclusion that we, us Moderns, have got the relationship between science and religion all wrong. While we cast religion as being primarily concerned with some illusory world out-there, inhabiting some sort of alternative plain, Latour seeks to convince us that religion is first and foremost concerned with the here and the now, with our internal relationship to the world as we move about it. Conversely, while science is held to be concerned primarily with what is evident and immutable all around us, Latour demonstrates that it is only by covering vast spaces and leaping between different manners of reference that we can say with some certainty of faith that scientific endeavors allow people to speak meaningfully about the world.

Central to Latour's arguments is the revocation of the subjective/objective world view. Once we are able to disprove that the world simply exists "out-there" while we ourselves are trapped "in-here" (as Latour ably proves), we are led to re-imagine what sort of relationship our ways of knowing have to the manner in which we live, and, in how we conceive of the relationships between our epistemologies. Latour argues that trying to compare the differing knowledges of religious insight and scientific truth is misguided, for they are dealing with fundamentally different realities. Once we understand that the two spheres are not engaged in speaking about the same aspects of experience, we can reconcile their shared insights rather than contrasting two approaches that were not meant to contest in the first place.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan - Herbert P. Bix

If we are to believe Herbert Bix, history has largely cast Japanese Emperor Hirohito as a relatively uninfluential bystander of Japan's involvement in the Manchuria and World War II. If we are to further believe Bix then a more in-depth look at what records are available reveals a picture of the Emperor as not only integral to Japan's war effort, but as systematically protected by his advisers in the aftermath of Japan's capitulation. With these assertions firmly in place - and to be  fully supported by what appears to be exhaustive research - Bix examines the life of the Showa emperor, particularly his political life leading up to the end of US occupation in Japan - in great depth. The result is a biography of one of the twentieth century's most misunderstood, shadowed and, eventually impactful men.

Seemingly miscast for the role of god-king into which he was born, the Showa Emperor, and grandson of the eminent Meiji, would forever remain uncomfortable asserting his total authority and even cowardly in accepting responsibility for Japan's armed forces. With a naturally retiring personality Hirohito would hold meetings of his advisers in which, after long hours, he would have said nothing at all. Leaving it to his lieutenants to deliver news, good or bad, to Japan's decision-makers, we are led to believe that Hirohito largely allowed himself to be led by wherever his strongest advisers wanted him to go. How then to square that with Bix's claim that, more so than anyone, it is upon Hirohito's shoulders that responsibility ought rest for the course of Japan in the 1930s and early 40s? While publicly trying to paint the Emperor's role as that of a British-style constitutional monarch, the truth is that Emperor's power was potentially, and at times in actuality, much more absolute. Hirohito had utmost control over Japan's armed forces and willingly allowed his generals and soldiers to perpetrate crimes that he viewed as unacceptable, but was simultaneously unwilling to stop. It was potentially within the Emperor's power to punish perpetrators and enact Japanese policies, which he was often made aware of long in advance, that could have altered the course of events, in relation to crimes against humanity and failures in persecution of the war effort. Yet, time and again, Hirohito refused to live up to his responsibility. When defeat came to Japan at the end of World War II, he was consumed with ensuring that he would remain Emperor of his country and free of any official suspicion of war crimes. As such the Emperor allowed, and sometimes encouraged the misrepresentation of war-time blame that was placed upon his generals and advisers. With the help of General MacArthur, Hirohito ensured the role of himself as necessary figurehead of a Japan in transition to post-war state. Though he was rendered largely politically impotent by the new Japanese constitution, the Showa Emperor was allowed to retain his title, his baubles and his freedom.

While Bix's biography sometimes lingers over the details of Japanese political machinations, while ignoring the larger impacts on the country - thus painting a picture of a political culture totally isolated from the people it governed - the inner workings of the Japanese system and the man whom they revolved around are given great detail and fleshed out with a character believable for his flawed nature. It is too simplistic to call the Emperor a coward, rather, Bix paints a picture of a man thrust into a role he at once felt duty-bound to succeed in, and was cursed to carry his entire life.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Ghost Soldiers - Hampton Sides

During the closing months of World War II it was apparent that America was winning the war in the Pacific against Japan. With American ground and sea forces advancing towards the mainland the Imperial Army was in full retreat, which meant the abandonment of bases and the pressing concern of what to do with allied prisoners of war (POWs). Rumors were circulating through official and unofficial channels of massacres occurring across the islands - POWs being executed en masse by all manners of fire, poison, shootings and even being run down by tanks. As forces advanced the worry was ever-present that the Japanese would leave no evidence of the maltreatment of prisoners throughout the war. Hampton Sides recounts the story of one rescue mission, sent to retrieve some of the last surviving members of the Bataan Death March; the last of the last left in a camp soon to be evacuated by the Japanese.

Sides endeavors to tell two stories: one of an elite group of American Army Rangers marching through the jungle night, of men primed and ready to go for a job which would require the help of guerillas on the ground and villagers along the way to ensure their secrecy. This thirty mile march would rely heavily on the element of surprise to catch the Japanese unaware so they would not slaughter POWs as the Rangers arrived. Second are the grim stories of those same POWs and how they managed to, some of them, survive for years in the camps. Fighting tropical diseases and malnutrition, constant worry over an end that might come at any time, and feeling totally abandoned by their country - left to the whims of their captors - these POWs would see and experience some of the worst crimes performed by men on each other.

Though this is ostensibly a story about patriotism and heroism, it is also a story about humility and the extent to which war can pit man against man and the extent of maltreatment between captors and captives. Sides admirably refuses to simply cast the Japanese as villains and the Americans as infallible heroes. War seems to bring out both the best and the worst in us all; Sides explores both aspects unblinkingly and reveals both the amazing strength and haunting demons of how we come together and are torn apart.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Zen Culture - Thomas Hoover

Beginning with the premise that the history of unified Japan is inseparable from that of the development of different aspects of the religion and ethos of Zen, Thomas Hoover traces the development of the country. Beginning with the first unification of government at Nara, through the Heian period and into the shogunate,Edo and modern period, Hoover is able to lucidly explain how these sociopolitical developments influenced and were part and parcel of Japan's Shinto/Buddhist religion/culture. While it may seem overly-simplistic to trace the development of any society through aspects of interior design, tea ceremonies, haiku poetry and Noh theatre, Hoover's Zen Culture  is a wonderful introduction to Japanese history and thought.

For occidental travelers Japan can often feel like a land set apart. While much seems familiar, so many aspects of culture have a certain twist that strikes the viewer as somehow fundamentally different, even to the pith of experience. Hoover gives the sense a background for anyone interested in beginning to understand both historical and modern Japan. Much of the ethos of zen is predicated upon training the mind to act clearly and lucidly: witness great masters of painting and haiku poetry, at study for years so that, when the time comes to create a masterpiece, their brushes and pens can flow thoughtlessly and fluidly, expressing deep truths about reality. For zen practitioners the undifferentiated aesthetic continuum of reality (a phrase cribbed from FSC Northrup) is the very fabric of existence. Not only are aesthetics of primary importance in zen, they are representative of everything. A rock garden is not only a backyard place for meditation, its -scape can be meant to convey subtle truths about the universe entire, and our relationship to it.

Hoover has accomplished something quite impressive in such a short work: he has written a cogent, and relatively nuanced history of Japan and the development of zen culture. The work should serve as a good base to continue to explore different understandings of a culture providing a different take of the onrush of history.

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, Vol. 1 - Jefferson Davis

Written after the close of the Civil War, and after Jefferson Davis had long been relegated to a life away from the public arena, The Rise and Fall the Confederate Government reads as a defense of the right of the southern states to secede from a country that had failed to live up to the promises of the constitution. For Davis, the crux of the issue surrounded to what extent the federal government did or did not secure and protect the rights of the various states of the union, and where the sovereignty of the people was vested.

Davis reaches back to the framers of the constitution to discuss the varying interpretations of states' rights. Not surprisingly he claims that the spirit of southern secession was more in-line with the intent of the framers when they endeavored to bring the various states together under the banner of one larger government. While history remembers the perspective of the winners, Davis counters popular retellings of the Civil War by casting northern aggression as disruptive of the desires of the south, writ large, to peacefully dissolve its part in the union. By claiming that the United States was first and foremost a compact of sovereign states, which had come together under the guise of the common welfare, Davis casts the argument as the rights of the people against a tyranny of Union (northern) powers.

Though Davis continues to belabor his central argument, the work moves along to describe secession and the opening of the Civil War. Though Davis' work sometimes gets bogged down in the internal machinations of politics and bureaucracy it is undeniably of interest to any student of American history. Where the work struggles is in Davis' defense of his own actions and too much focus on the nuts-and-bolts military details (it was known at the time that Davis would have preferred a generalship in the confederate army to the presidency). Though far from a masterpiece, Davis' work allows the reader to explore many aspects of how the confederacy thought of itself, and how it imagined the direction of the United States.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Magnificent Ambersons - Booth Tarkington

An American born in 1850, and living a standard, certainly not excessive lifespan, of 70 years, would have seen his country transformed from a largely rural, generally agrarian society, to an industrial, urban world power. Along the way the Confederacy would rise and fall, the robber barons would exploit power vacuums to become some of the wealthiest men ever seen, the north would industrialize and come to rely on far off lands for goods and resources, and the coming of the automobile, more so than its precursor the railroad, would open up the country for the quick movement of millions. One could argue that the geography of America we see today was largely set in this period. In this cyberspace I have reviewed William Cronon's work on Chicago and how the city's development greatly influenced the rise of the American West. While Cronon's work focuses on the broader context of an evolving history, Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons looks at the fortunes (and failings) of one family, who was to profit by America's transformation, but eventually unable to deal with the emergent world.

Tarkington's work follows the life of young Georgie Amberson. Born to the preeminent family in his small, but burgeoning American town, the young Amberson shows a distinct haughtiness and force of character unbecoming to most of the town's inhabitants. When elderly gentlemen along the road wish aloud that, someday, the headstrong young man will get his comeuppance we are left little doubt that such will be the case. Unable to adapt to the new world and new expectations put on him, Amberson's grievous sin of pride eventually lays him low. Whether we feel sorry for him, and lament the passing of a certain era, or whether his end reads as so much poetic justice, is far from clear. Truly, these complications of people and their society are a part of what makes Tarkington's novel so compelling. In the end, George Amberson believed the world ought function a certain way. His inability to reconcile his ideals with a changing reality is a message still entirely relevant.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Birdscapes - Jeremy Mynott

That people feel a certain connection with, or affinity for birds can be traced across different societies, throughout time, the world over. How people come to know and interact with birds is recorded in scientific studies, literature reviews, conservation organizations, and folklore (among others). Throughout there seems to be something about birds in particular that gives flight to human imagination [pun intended]. But understanding why birds play such a role in our lives remains a truism largely unexplored. To better understand the interaction between bird-life and humanity, Jeremy Mynott sets about to review a panoply of the different ways that people have come to know and think about birds. Mynott tells us that it is our interactions with birds, the constitutive process by which we come to know and think about them, that tells us the most about human interactions with the world. Far from simply offering an insight into birds, Mynott believes that a reflection on the meaning of birds to people can also provide insight into ourselves.

There are many ways to experience birds and Mynott runs through quite a gamut of them.Whether it is birdsong on a summer morning, the paintings of Audobon, religious and cultural icons, visitors to our home and garden, or rare glimpses of a wandering migrant out at sea, birds can variously perform many social roles. As avatars in religious iconography they represent the hopes of people in another world. Flying over trees and across mountains - who hasn't looked longing at the prospect of flight? Calling in the first notes of spring, or departing in the autumn for warmer climes, they can remind us of the wheel of time and the changing seasons. Crucial to all of these is not simply what birds are, but what sort of values we imbue them with; the reality we perceive is largely of our own creation. To each interaction any bird will bring certain things, but so will all people, and what we take away depends largely on how we experience the world around us. Mynott shows that there are many levels of identification and recognition between people and the world. Focusing on the different roles of birds in our minds and in the world around us lends insight to our own place and lives.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Power Broker - Robert Caro

In the end, the most intriguing, and perhaps beguiling, aspect of Robert Moses was the man's sheer energy. Well into his eighties the force of the man who once called aids at all hours of the night, who would appear at the door for his limousine with an already completed stack of memos and missives before he even set out for work, remained simply over-powering. A man who attained power rarely equaled in free and open societies was, by the end of his days, reduced to a bystander on the very stages he had helped envision and realize. Yet he wouldn't slow down; refused to. Made frequently manic by his still-existent stores of energy and desire to Get Things Done as he always had, Robert Moses, the master builder of New York was to be eventually pried-away from the power he cultivated and accrued over forty-four years in the public's service.

Robert Caro's biography of this massive man is itself a massive undertaking. Seemingly the highest compliment one could give an 1162-page book is this: I wish it had been longer. The depth of research in Caro's work is so great, that the reader can almost feel the different places where information has been cut out; where Caro had to either be reined in, or reined himself in for the sake of the work's completion. With the recent publication of Caro's fourth installment in the Years of Lyndon Johnson, so much has been written about his talents that I scarcely feel the need to elaborate them here. I will limit my own plaudits to one simple assertion: he is, without question, the greatest biographer or historian I have ever read.

In this, his maiden biography, Caro delves deep into the man that was Robert Moses. The man who would build New York as we recognize it. The man who would exploit vacuums of power that other men could never dream existed, and employ that power to rule a kingdom of his own creation with an iron will. Moses was clearly a man of great brilliance, great vision and a powerful man of political and bureaucratic acumen. Yet it seems that what truly set him apart was his single-minded willingness to push and drive himself and those around him. Caro deals with the great panoply of Moses ethics and to what extent he gave a lick for the millions of people whose lives who altered irrevocably, but, whether we think of him as the master builder or simply the greedy power broker, we cannot help but marvel at all that a man of total dedication to his cause was able to achieve. Yet even with all these great monuments, what exactly Moses set out to realize remains as shadowy and complex as the man himself. Why dedicate your life to the construction of such public works? Was it for the glory of one man or for the benefit millions of people? Why push so relentlessly to ensure total control over all aspects of construction? Why jealously accrue power that cannot but insulate oneself from the world around you? In the end Caro provides numerous insights into the character and causes of Robert Moses. But we are left with unanswered questions. Questions that Caro allows to hang over Moses' machinations, triumphs, and eventual failures. These are not a shortcoming of the work - far from it. Rather, Moses leaps from the page as a fully human entity. That being human means being riven by contradiction and uncertainty as to our roles and relationships with the world around us allows for a person's character to be explored fully. Rather than provide a closing chapter, a gross simplification of this towering man's life, Caro has laid Moses and his times bare, so that, whether good or bad, he remains one for the ages.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

An Inquiry into the Good - Nishida Kitarō

Attempting to synthesize the rational approach of Western philosophy with the undifferentiated aesthetic continuum truths of the eastern Zen tradition, turn-of-the-century philosopher, and founder of the Kyoto school, Nishida Kitarō explores direct experience and what it tells us about how to live a full human life. For Nishida it is not that there are experiences because of individuals, rather, individuals are the result of experience. This seemingly innocuous inversion open the pathway to a philosophy wholly divergent from most of the western approach (certainly from such thinkers as Augustine and Descartes).

Nishida speaks of a philosophy premised upon pure experience - doing away with the a priori or forms, or other realms acting upon reality. For him reality is most satisfactorily explained by interrogating that which is actually experienced. Rather than rely on the comfortable division between subjective and objective, what is seen as perhaps the primary offspring of western rationalism, Nishida preempts such division by casting it as little more than a construction the mind places upon a just-experienced reality. As is mentioned  in Pirsig (probably echoing Nishida), there is a lag between reality as we experience it in the present, and our intellectual unpacking of the world around us, which can only really deal with the past - no matter how recent our lens focuses. This time lag is, for Nishida, not an inconsequential aspect of our existence, for it is in the passage between present and future that our intellectual concepts go to work to carve up experience. It is in this passage that mind and matter become distinguishable. Rather than having the subject meet the object, the two become abstracted from pure experience; therein lies the difference. For Nishida consciousness is an activity, one in which we are inseparable from that which we study.

Nishida interrogates this unity of people and the world under the heading phenomena of consciousness. For Nishida the world is made by and in the minds of people, while people are made by the world they live in. Once a person understands that these are nothing but the same thing they are reaching towards the unity required of a person to live in accord with experience, which is itself the phenomena of consciousness. Here we can see that Nishida is not so far from the western tradition after all. It was the Oracle at Delphi who instructed Socrates only to "know thyself." Nishida agrees. For he sees reality as the good, and an understanding that reality is constantly an event that we produce means that the good is both with and around us. This is the unity of consciousness. When world and the individual are seen to be resultant of the same process of development and completion, morality and reality can bear upon one another; existence and value are fundamentally one.

Friday, April 20, 2012

To See Every Bird on Earth - Dan Koeppel

Dan Koeppel chronicles his life and relationship to his father through his father's singular obsession with birding. As one of the world's preeminent "Big Listers" Koeppel's father has seen more than 7,000 birds, a number believe to have been achieved by fewer than a dozen people. Though birding is meant to be the lens through which this story is viewed, the book drifts between a memoir, an accounting of bird species, and a psycho-analysis of Koeppel and his father. Unfortunately, in trying to capture the entire passage of time, Koeppel leaves too much unexplored and the reader is left without a clear sense of beauty and majesty of birds and birding.

To See Every Bird on Earth is a story trying to  make a cohesive sense of the differently interwoven aspects of family, obsession, beauty, how humans grow and change, and how it is that we all try to find fulfillment in our lives. Rather than treat any these issues fully, the work to lightly skips over all of them, leaving us unsure as to how the interactions of each are understood. At its core the book suffers from one key shortcoming: there simply isn't enough about birds and birding. One gets the sense that perhaps the work would have had more resonance if his father, Richard Koeppel, would have helped to write about what drove him for half-a-century to pursue birds to every corner of the globe, and why this passion too-often felt like an unnecessary distraction to the elder Koeppel and others in his life. That someone would pursue the chance to break free in such an esoteric fashion certainly can open many doors to fascinating aspects of nature, society, relationships between people, and how we think of our place in the world. Koeppel gives many of these issues, but they could use a heavier hand. Though the work is light and allows a relatively dry topic to move with fluidity - this the books greatest strength - it is really a story about a man and his relationship to his father, with all the strengths and weaknesses of an adequately executed work within that genre.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Formal Logic: a scientific and social problem - F.C.S. Schiller

An overlooked, and strikingly modern take on the structure and limitations of logic, F.C.S. Schiller takes on some of the most powerful, but heretofore largely unexamined, assumptions and shortcomings that undergird much of western epistemology. Of primary concern to Schiller is the belief that knowledge can ever exist free from context in an abstracted and ideal form. Once any "fact" as been abstracted from the situation of its formation, it potentially is altered and loses its meaning. Since anything cannot be known except by its relationships its context is not only meaningful, it means everything. Thus, it is less 'things' that we are to be concerned with (if we want 'to know') and more processes that make up reality.

Once understandings of reality must be tied to processes and contexts it is a small jump to re-imagine how we think about the world around us. For example, the premises that we often operate on, rather than being 'self-evident' become a crucial setting that will color how we view an entity or idea. Once we are guided in any direction, certain beings and ways of knowing are prized over others, potentially leading to our overlooking certain aspects. No matter how much we claim to be observing 'facts' we can never know for certain that we have considered all the important aspects. This means that all knowledge must be a tentative guess at the nature of reality, never to be fully confirmed, only to be denied. Because there cannot be absolute knowledge, how we understand reality is based upon how we translate the world into representations of it. Along the path of translations many conflating factors come into play (contextualization) and we must be careful when we assert what we know. There must always be a question as to whether or not a translation has been successful.

Thus, absolute truth is only truth abstracted from all context, and thus it is useless. Yet it is exactly this context-free truth that Logic claims to reveal. Rather, any knowledge is valid in regards only to its usefulness, or, in regards to its relationship to the rest of reality. While this work has been largely overlooked, it anticipates much of the work of Whitehead and later movements in philosophy. A strikingly modern account, Schiller's work seems almost prescient of later movements concerning epistemology.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee - Dee Brown

The history of the American West, Dee Brown informs/reminds us, looks very different facing East from Indian country. Between 1860 and 1890 the United States government and its white citizens were active and complicit in the utter extermination of the Indian tribes west of the Mississippi. This is the story of the Cheyenne, the Sioux, the Minnecojou, the Nez Perce, the Apache, and many more tribes of people who were forcibly moved, disarmed, dispossessed, starved, and eventually slaughtered at the hands of American soldiers and mercenaries. For those with the willingness to remember, the West is a blood-stained land of scars.

Initially Dee Brown's recounting (superbly researched and nuanced in its detail) reads a bit like a listing of battles and forced Indian migrations. But somewhere along the way, as the reader begins to more fully appreciated how all the stories of the tribes tie together, as names like Spotted Tail and Big Foot float along the periphery of different tribes struggles, only to be quickly snuffed out in waves of violence, one begins to feel the enormity and the depth of the losses suffered. Yet Brown walks a fine line by not simply casting the Indian peoples as lambs blindly led to the slaughter. Stories of Crazy Horse, Chief Joseph, Ten Bears and Satanta (among many others) show complex men trying to deal with a world melting under their very feet and attempting to protect the lives and spirits of their people. As warriors, leaders, and diplomats, these men did all that was within their power to try and carve out a small corner of a vast land they once inhabited and live alongside the onslaught of white settlers and soldiers. The eventual reasons for their defeat are numerous and unique to each tribe, but binding these stories together is the total subversion of the American government to land and resource greed and what would finally be the inability of the Indians to reconcile white intentions with their own concepts of the good. When it was all said and done one is left with the impression that Indians could only fathom the depths to which whites were willing to break their word and ignore their treaties when it was all but too late. Sitting Bull saw it, and Red Cloud came to understand, but by then even the reservations were being carved up and the Dakotas being transferred to whites who, less than a decade earlier, relinquished all claims to what was seen as a useless land.

There is no silver lining here, no reason for hope or celebration at the genocide of the American Indians. It is forever a part of the American legacy to inhabit a stolen land. It is fitting that Brown's recounting ends at the Massacre at Wounded Knee. There, one of the last of the plains chiefs, Big Foot, an aging man dying of pneumonia, was gunned down by white soldiers with as many as three hundred of his followers, all of whom were left to freeze into twisted corpses in the coming blizzard.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Lila: An Inquiry into Morals - Robert Pirsig

Robert Pirsig's followup to his seminal (and some would argue transformative) work Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, returns to the life of Phaedrus and his pursuit of the Metaphysics of Quality (MOQ). Seemingly more settled in his pursuit of a counter-culture ideal, Phaedrus sails toward the Atlantic Ocean, along the way treating his insights into the role that Quality has to play in the world which he has garnered in almost twenty years since ZAMM.
A much more strictly philosophical book than ZAMM, Pirsig generally assumes that his reader has read the prior work and comes to Lila with a relatively sympathetic viewpoint. Of course this follow-up is seemingly less revolutionary than ZAMM but in fact goes much deeper into the implications of the MOQ. Whereas before Pirsig was content to introduce aspects of Quality and his path in discovering its role in our conception of reality, any further exposition requires both deeper reflection and more thorough defense. No longer is Pirsig content to leave Quality as the undefined leading edge of reality. Rather, Pirsig expounds on both the concrete and theoretical aspects of Quality. When it is all said and done the sympathetic reader is left with a drastically different understanding of the world and the formation of right and wrong.
Pirsig sees all entities striving towards Quality rich experiences and places this at the center of reality. Prior to conceptions, or names or delineations between me and you, this and that, or subject and object, are the numerous feelings of Quality that make up the present in which life is actually lived. That all things partake of this Quality means that each is a part of a larger Quality-rich continuum, thereby removing the seeming disparities of time, space and theme. While all entities are aware of the relative Quality of their environments, Pirsig tells us that our culture has become accustomed to proceed as though Quality were unimportant, or even, that it does not exist at all. Thus, it is very hard for us to conceive the role that Quality plays. But Pirsig goes even further, he says that it is nothing but this pursuit of Quality that binds all things, and provides the driving force behind the creative aspects of the world. While one species of Quality, static, makes reality understandable and gives permanence to experience, Dynamic Quality, that elusive ghost that we are all chasing, is the very cutting edge of reality. Yet, these two aspects of Quality are often in conflict with one another. Just as static Quality can be the laws and morals that bind society together, Dynamica Quality is the evolving aspects that allow for us to grow, adapt and change.
While much about this may seem to fly-in-the-face of everything we understand about the world, Pirsig argues that it is really founded in the most homespun, plain philosophy there is. Rather than set up conceptual chasms, such as the subjective and objective, the MOQ allows that all things partake and compose the same world, and that they are best understood as part and parcel of this whole system. For Pirsig a philosophy is only as good as its ability to treat with the world we experience, and Pirsig seems to convincingly argue that the MOQ more thoroughly and satisfactorily explains reality than our traditional, western conceptions (what he and others refer to as the philosophy of substance). For Pirsig all of this talk and positioning is about a pursuit of the good. Once we acknowledge that Quality exists (as he demands we all already know), then it is the pursuit of that Dynamic Quality, or the Good, that Pirisig sees as the binding aspect which drives existence forward. Certainly there is much that is good and interesting here to challenge us all.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Process and Reality - Alfred North Whitehead

"Consciousness is the crown of experience, only occasionally attained, not its necessary base.p 378

Whitehead brings a theory of everything, it being cosmology after all, by offering a Philosophy of the Organism to explain  how reality is a passage at the knife edge of now. Rather than taking the substance-predicate at face value, Whitehead exposes the contradictions in the Cartesian thought and demonstrates how conceptions of interaction and atomism are not exclusive. Stunning in its breadth and ability to explain what Whitehead sees as the composition of our world Process and Reality (relatively) simply is an absolutely seminal piece of modern philosophy.

The Philosophy of the Organism looks at the manner in which objects become concretized and therefore incorporate other prior objectifications in their composition. Whitehead cleaves reality into two - interdependent - types of entities: the actual and the eternal. Actual entities, also known as occasions, are "the final real things" the world is made of, but are themselves also nexus. The manner in which different entities interact with one another is called their prehensions: without their prehensions actual entities are unrecognizable, and with an understanding of the actual entities prehensions become meaningless. Throughout this it is of paramount importance to keep in mind that actual entities are never to be conceived as unchanging subjects: the moment they are come together into a public the object has begun its perishing into a new process of becoming. Eternal objects participate in the actual by the means of ingression. Eternal objects are the mode of possibility of any concrescence, but are not realized except in the actual. Being able to truly pick apart what Whitehead means by this and the implications, even after a close reading of Process and Reality, is far from straight forward.

There is much more in this work than can be covered here. What seems of crucial importance is to include Whitehead's conception of the antithesis. Whitehead's Philosophy of the Organism cannot be separated from his conception of novelty in the universe, or, what he calls God. For the Philosophy of the Organism recognizes that all things are constantly engaged in the emergence of creation and dying, and that the emergence of new things can never fully be understood in terms of their compositional entities. That the universe is both fluid and static, that the dynamic, to meaningfully exist, must be grounded is, for Whitehead, apparent. That which is not, but all that is novel in the process of becoming, is the crux of existence.

"In the inescapable flux, there is something that abides; in the overwhelming permanence, there is an element that escapes into flux. Permanence can be snatched only out of flux; and the passing moment can find its adequate intensity only by submission to permanence." p. 478

Monday, March 5, 2012

Phaedrus - Plato

Shouldn’t one reflect about the nature of anything like this: First, is the thing about which we shall want to be experts ourselves and be capable of making others expert about something that is simple or complex [many formed]? Next, if it is simple, we should consider, shouldn’t we, what natural capacity it has for being acted upon, and by what; and if it has more forms than one, we should count these, and see in the case of each, as in the case of where it had only one, with which of them it is its nature to do what, or with which to have what done to it by what?.. And at any rate, proceeding without doing these things would seem to be just like a blind man’s progress.P. 56-57

Most likely one of Plato's later dialogues, and certainly one of his more famous, the Phaedrus is one of Plato's most direct addresses on the subject of rhetoric and, one would figure, the sophists that normally served as his foil. Running throughout, as in many of his works, is Plato's insistence that a comprehensive knowledge of a subject must first be obtained before creative thought within that realm can begin. Crucial to such an understanding is finding the pivot points, or "joints", which are of key importance to a things existence and interactions. It would seem that Plato would label the forms as those crucial points, though it is unclear how to find crucial points within the particulars of the world. We know that Plato distinguishes between that which is simple and that which is complex, though how this relates to change and particulars in the world is not directly addressed here.

This translation offers a lively and accessible reading of a dialogue that requires a bit of foreknowledge concerning Plato's other works. Rowe has provided copious notes concerning earlier references and potential vagaries in meaning. A good introduction to Plato's work and thoughts in general.

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Two Cultures: and A Second Look

Originally a speech given at Cambridge, C. P. Snow's The Two Cultures went a long way towards defining the broader intellectual class' discomfort with the rise in industrial-technology and the seeming lack of moral rigor it was being subjected to. A self-described scientist, Snow laments the seemingly unbridgeable gap between his university colleagues in the sciences and the humanities. As he famously put it, it seems that scientists in Cambridge had more in common with scientists at M.I.T. than with their colleagues across the campus. For Snow this was problem that threatened to, not only undermine the pursuits of the educated, but spread to broader concerns of morality and progress in society.

Though their realms of investigation differ, Snow believed that the sciences and humanities had much to teach one another. “As we read our imaginations stretch wider than our beliefs. If we construct mental boxes to shut out what won’t fit, then we make ourselves meaner.” P. 92-3
He believed that this applied for scientists looking to broaden their thinking through the humanities as much as poets and novelists could learn about the world around them through the sciences. As a scientist and writer of fiction, Snow lived what he spoke.

Of course this critique feels strikingly modern, and but for a few asides concerning the communist manner of education it could have been written recently. We should pause to wonder what the purpose of our educational systems are, and if they are accomplishing what we hope?

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Born to Run - Christopher McDougall

Starting with the basic question, "why does my foot hurt?" Christopher McDougall travels around the world and puts his own body on the line to discover the secret of the running people: that humans may be biologically born to run. Though such a claim may ring dubious to many of us - there are many well-respected thinkers and knowledgeable people who will claim that the human body is an imperfect machine never designed to take the stress and strain of running - McDougall marshals evidence that he argues is hidden in plain sight.

Taking a broad sweep of running nutrition, competitive history, technique and maybe even a few secrets along the way, Born to Run has already cast a broad shadow over the running community and continues to find its footing deeper in the popular consciousness. Reading a bit like a modern Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the work starts off with simple premises and comfortable realms of thought (issues like training techniques, human physiology and athletic shoe construction) and slowly develops a deeper thesis: that running has made us into the people we are, that modern man (and woman) has what it takes, is outfitted like no other species on this Earth, to run and that it was this unique ability that allowed us to compete and survive for millions of years. Finally, McDougall talks about the important effects of running for each person. Beyond health and fitness, he looks to the proof he sees in some of the greatest runners he has encountered and finds that, almost without fail, the best long-distance runners are those who participate out of the sheer joy of running, the extent to which it fulfills their humanity and binds them together.

Like many other works relying upon an intuitive connection with the reader, Born to Run succeeds or fails to the extent that we are able to identify with its premises. This is my second time reading the book and I feel as though I have found even more to mull over the second time. If nothing else I find it a work that energizes me to get out there and be one of the running people; that it continues to change the way I think about running and my own well-being is, I believe, testament enough as to whether McDougall's work is successful.

Friday, February 3, 2012

In the Spirit of Crazy Horse - Peter Matthiessen

Perhaps, the things that ought to change the most never do. Growing up the historical treatment of American Indians by settlers of the Americas and subsequently by the United States government is a topic more alluded to than it is fully addressed. Throughout the pervasive attitude is one of historical inquiry only. Certainly it is terrible that our forefathers subjected millions of people to targeted attacks, forced removals, massacres, not only of men, but of women and children, and did everything in their power to cheat Indians out of the lands occupied since time out of mind, but we could safely view such duplicity as days gone by, a past that the United States has done its best to forget.

Peter Matthiessen reminds us that everything old can be made new again. Indeed, In The Spirit of Crazy Horse, gives scant attention to the saddening past of the United States relations with Indians and instead focuses more on what Matthiessen paints as an outrageous present. Though the book was first published in 1981 – after many years of legal wrangling – its story continues. Matthiessen’s primary focus is the murder of three men (two FBI agents and one Indian) during a shootout between FBI agents and an untold number of Indian men on the Pine Ridge Reservation in June of 1975. Though the FBI would do nothing to investigate the death of AIM activist Jim Stuntz, when two FBI agents are gunned down, particularly potentially in conjunction with a movement that the FBI views as a subversive, perhaps terrorist organization, we are treated to a story in which the Bureau will stop at nothing to get it’s man – guilty or not. The brunt of the government’s case was eventually to fall on Leonard Peltier – currently ineligible for parole until at least 2040. It was Peltier, the FBI would claim, that executed agents Williams and Coler at close range. Whether or not this is true may never be known, what Matthiessen does convincingly show is that, according to the letter of American justice, the manner in which Peltier was convicted hardly accords with even the barest essence of judicial fairness. Matthiessen recounts the perjuring of many witnesses, the shifting in evidence and what appears to be the blatant disregard of defense claims by judges. The list of obstacles placed before Peltier’s attorneys and supporters verges on the unbelievable, and surely Matthiessen engages in strategic remembering – he is unabashedly siding with the Indians. Yet the facts stand even today and ought to make all Americans wonder at the true motive of government.

Whatever happened outside of the Jumping Bull camp on Pine Ridge that day is saddening in the extreme, who is to blame remains elusive. What is known is the Leonard Peltier, in accordance with a long tradition of gross abuse of Indians by the United States government, remains there still. We cannot help but wonder to what extent justice is all of our concern.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Spatial Resilience of Social-Ecological Systems - Graeme S. Cumming

An introduction and overview of the necessity of including spatial components concerns to our analysis of social-ecological systems (SES), Cumming adroitly breaks down aspects of resiliency and clearly indicates the necessity of thinking in and across spatial scales when considering the functioning of complex systems. Operating under the premise that organization in complex systems is an emergent quality of a host of quantifiable variables, Cumming's focus on the SESs indicates how the nexus of human/natural interactions can be parsed in many ways and contrasted across differing scales. Throughout he has broken-down, in simple English, how properties of resilience are emergent of integrated systems of people and their surrounding environments. As the concepts continue to be elucidated throughout the work it becomes gradually apparent that Cumming is revealing a broad-sweeping critique of how we connect theory to practice in managing SESs.

Grounded in notions of network analysis, social-ecological systems are predicated upon the idea that all locations of arrival are derivative of the interactions of socio-environmental actors across scales and nested within contexts. Indeed, it can be argued that separations of people and nature are less points of departure, than they are points of arrival; SESs speak to this. By refusing to make an a priori demarcation between the social and the ecological, Cumming allows for the actors (or vertices, or nodes) to speak for themselves the only way they know how, through their relationships (or connections, or edges or articulations) with one another. In so situating himself Cumming is approaching complex issues of the natural sciences from a more dialectical point of view than is often taken. Though the work does delve into the foundations of how entities from which these systems emerge, are composed, an extrapolation of his work leads the reader to posit an inter-related world, one where components of analysis can never be understood, much less conserved, in isolation. Though he brushes upon system identity, one cannot help but wonder if Cumming would be willing to extend the emergent nature of his complex systems to the individual?

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Choice: How Clinton Won - Bob Woodward

Inside the formative months of the 1996 Presidential Campaign, the foremost Washington insider contrasts the machinations of Bob Dole's quest for the presidency with Clinton's concern of how to make his own case to the American electorate. In Woodward's recounting President Clinton had all-but assured victory before the general election began. By June the Clinton-Gore apparatus was well on its way to raising a record $180 million while Dole's campaign would battle with message and fundraising issues throughout. For Woodward this was a campaign more about communication and funding than anything else. Thus it is little surprise that Dole, the consummate senator and nuanced equivocator, could scarcely compete with Bill Clinton, the master communicator.

While few men in American public life may have been more qualified to be President than Robert J. Dole, Woodward's appraisal of Dole's character forces the question of what is required of a President besides experience? Throughout the campaign cycle Dole is frequently unable to master his organization and unable to make executive-style decisions concerning policy, message and strategy. Dole seems to be the archetype of go-along/get-along senate collegiality. In contrast, Clinton, while it is lamented that he often over-analyzes all points, has the bearing of an executive and the willingness to make decisions and soldier forward. Surely some of this difference of tenor cannot be separated  from the aura surrounding the presidency - one wonders how the two would be cast differently were Dole the incumbent and Clinton the challenger - but we are certainly left with the impression that the illusory quality of leadership inheres more in Clinton than Dole. Inasmuch as the presidency may require a sort of American father figure Clinton seems to relish this role, while Dole shrinks from it.

Though it may be apocryphal, Averell Harriman was remarked to have said that men seeking the Presidency must desire, above all else, to be President. Whether or not this is true, and whether or not it reflects well on American politics is open to debate. What is clear is that in the 1996 Presidential Election Bill Clinton desired more than anything else to retain the presidency. That Bob Dole could not give a satisfactory reason for why America should alter course appears inseparable from the portrait Woodward paints of Dole as a decent man. Perhaps he simply was not willing to sacrifice enough to be President; Woodward leaves us unsure as to whether or not this ought redound to his credit.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Higher Learning in America - Robert Maynard Hutchins

One of the foremost thinkers of education in the twentieth century, former University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins makes an emphatic, and still timely, plea for drastic changes to higher education in the United States. To hear Hutchins tell it, the logic upon which the system of higher education rests is flawed. Schools are at once trying to train people for vocations and to maximize the life of the mind, the end result being that neither is adequately accomplished. Hutchins counters that the primary goal of educational institutions should be to provide students with a curriculum that is entirely focused upon the pursuit of truth for its own sake. Though this pursuit of truth can take on many different forms, Hutchins believes that understanding our common humanity must remain a central tenet.

Hutchins makes numerous recommendations that would rise perhaps universal ire across the education community, and it would be entirely relevant to question whether or not his recommendations are outmoded. What remains of relevance are questions surrounding the purpose of the American educational system; Hutchins opens the door to a conversation that remains glaringly unresolved.