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.