Saturday, June 29, 2013

Nixon: The Education of a Poltician 1913-1962

"He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president. Nixon was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning ... He was queer in the deepest way. His body should have been burned in a trash bin." - Hunter Thompson, on the death of President Richard Nixon

It is absolutely impossible to read a biography of Richard Nixon divorced from what the man would grow into within a certain part of the American consciousness. My mother was raised by Eisenhower Republicans. The first election in which she was eligible to vote was 1972. To this day her vote for Nixon hangs like a specter in her mind. Hunter Thompson believes that such a man as this transcends objective journalism; that it was specifically this tendency to overtly rational thought that Nixon perverted in the first place. Even now, it feels dishonest to review a biography on him without mentioning such things.

Fairly or unfairly, political biographies, particularly those of presidents, will, for some time, be measured against the triumph of Robert Caro's The Years of Lyndon Johnson. This is, most likely, unfair for numerous reasons, the least of which is that Caro has spent more than forty years writing this four, soon-to-be five, volume work. Stephen Ambrose has clearly set-out to achieve something different, in his own three-volume life of Richard Nixon.

As a retelling of a life, Ambrose first part works well enough. Here are the facts, Jack, and there is enough wiggle-room allowed for a reader's interpretation. Yet, too often it seems that Ambrose has not taken the initiative to separate myth from history. To whit: he recounts the scene before Nixon's "Last Press Conference" in the defeated candidates hotel room, only to leave the reader uncertain as to what prompted Nixon's rebuke of the press. It is perhaps the greatest testament to Nixon the man to say of a 600-plus page biography, even knowing that it is part one of three, that I wish it would have been much longer. Though he takes a few paragraphs out to engage in some counter-factual history, what if Nixon had won in 1960, we are left with only hints of a stolen Kennedy election. Though it may be too much to ask for a conclusive answer, surely a deeper analysis of this pivotal hinge in American history, not to mention the life of Richard Nixon, is in order.

While Ambrose has done much to give Nixon's image a, probably much-needed, softening, we are left wondering beyond facts which could be simply distilled from deep historical reading amongst stacks of newspapers. Ambrose takes not nearly enough time to get into Nixon's life and relationships and root around. He vacillates between Nixon as inherently unknowable mysterious figure and entirely public persona. Jumping from episode to episode, we witness Ambrose's Nixon growing in stature and influence, without our having much sense of the man. There is little achieved to dissuade the reader of their preconceived notions of this most loved and hated man. If the subject himself were not so fascinating, one wonders what purpose the work would serve? 

Though Ambrose may be correct in railing against so-called "psychological biographers," surely the more uncertain motivations and personal machinations of such a towering and vast historical figure as Nixon, a more careful analysis of the man as situated within a time that he helped to co-create, might tell us more about ourselves and our history.

Nixon's spirit, love him or hate him, remains noticeably absent throughout the work. Thompson's 2,500-word obituary speaks more to the substance of Richard Nixon, albeit from one drastically derisive point of view, than Ambrose has captured. 

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Complexity - Roger Lewin

Roger Lewin sets out to better understand the notion of emergence, and, more broadly, its relationship to the science of Complexity. Whether or not it is intentional, Lewin's approach is itself a sort-of exercise in cultivating emergence. In trying to tease out the more subtle aspects and important ramifications of Complexity theory and science, Lewin hopes to uncover heretofore unrealized understandings.

As an introduction to Complexity Lewin's work successfully posits different thinkers against one another. In-so-doing he simulates a focused dialogue for the uninitiated that at once examines the common ground and differentiation in thinking about complex systems. Along the way aspects of evolution and self-organization within systems are given a critical examination. If, as many scientists within the work suggest (and Lewin seems to be sympathetic towards), there are certain attractors of order within complex systems, then evolution will favor certain outcomes. If true, the implications of this force a re-imagination of Darwin's theory and might demand a re-examination of our interactions with the world. The uncertainty of emergence is perhaps the most tricky, yet the most potentially fruitful aspect, of Complexity thought.

At the very least, notions of Complexity thinking suggest reflection surrounding notions of equilibria in nature. If it is less the components of a system, and more the interactions between these pieces, that give a system its identity, then evolution and creative novelty are both drivers and resultants of complex systems. Looking towards relationships first, as Serres and Whitehead do, means re-thinking our approaches across disciplines; scientific or otherwise.

The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War - Donald Kagan

Thucydides believed that the Peloponnesian War (431 - 404bce) was inevitable. The closing of the Greco-Persian War left the Hellenic world riven between a polarity of attractors: Sparta and Athens. For forty years the Athenians would pugnaciously push their advantage in the Mediterranean; Sparta waited, knowing from hard-fought experience that rivals come and rivals go. But the growth of Athens remained unchecked, and, despite light skirmishes, Sparta proudly maintained her supposed hegemony. But the Lacedaemonians could remain aloof for only so long. It was fated in the stars, as Athens goaded Sparta's allies, that the rival powers must clash; bringing a new order to the Hellenes.

Donald Kagan fiercely contests Thucydides inevitability thesis. To the contrary, Kagan writes, the Peloponnesian War resulted from a confluence of emergent circumstance which transcended the control and intention of those involved. Kagan emphasizes that, to speak of Sparta, Athens, or any other Greek polis, one must negotiate the passage between the internal and the external, the domestic and the foreign; the multiple and the singular. Clashes were often less between city-states and more between specific factions within each city-state; such factions would periodically wax and wane in power. It is only when such factions exercised power, thereby responding to and subsequently altering regional events, that a small undercurrent leading towards conflict swept the Greeks along towards war.

In answering Thucydides claim of inevitability, Kagan's approach reveals a different history. Inevitability as such suggests a causality in which  outcomes are equal to the sum of their inputs. A certain reorganization of powers, wealth and influence. Such a history must be linear; it leaves no room for creative novelty; emergence is absent. Kagan's history is one of percolations; of folded times. Technologies are employed and actions are put-forth into a world of tentative uncertainty. When actors are co-defined, when relations create spaces of arrival which earn the name of a discrete entity, then outcomes are never fore-ordained. Kagan speaks of a different relationship with time. Rather than a linear progression of inputs and outcomes, Kagan's folded and percolated times move with fits and bursts. Events and objects replay their importance. Did they ever depart in the first place? Creative novelty emerges from the knife-edge of uncertainty. As actors wobble between co-created identities, as they become in relation to evolving circumstance, time is the result.

Change and asymmetries of outcomes demand response and re-definition, thus, the world moves forward. The Peloponnesian War far surpassed anyone's expectations; it was a war that no one wanted. Yet, the fault was not in the stars. Politicians and citizens made choices in-light of changing circumstances. Sometimes they chose well, sometimes ill. But in a co-created world there is often chance to retreat from the precipice. Rhetoric of the time suggested that each had no other alternative but conflict - at a certain point this was surely true. But all circumstance is itself  a synthetic place of arrival. And each action ought to bespeak an uncertainty by the actor.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Troubadour of Knowledge - Michel Serres

A topology of time and of the person. Michel Serres speaks of the Instructed-Third. Fabulous generalist? Not precisely. More as one who is, themself, a fluid ensemble, what the ancients might have called a master of rhetoric. Odysseus, man of a thousand talents. Lumpy time demands lumpy personhood.

As time is not simply a linear recounting, but emerges in fits and starts, so too, the creative novelty of the individual, or better, the hub of the wheel, is a passage, held in place by a great many things. Here again events converge, and novelties emerge. Wobbly persona; uncertain personhood. Time is a continual birth of us all, and us, of time. If someone asks who you really are, look deeply into the eyes of he who asks, he will not ask again.

There is no end to the patchwork cloak of us all. Harlequin forever removes his second-to-last coat. The task of each is to make that cloak as variegated , as multiple, as possible. In other places Serres speaks of dancers; of the passage of muse. We cannot help but translate the world, but neither can we dominate it. We are swallowed by a context that we co-evolve with and within. Whitehead called it superject. The goal is thought, leading to invention. Novelty: the birth place of time.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald

Out among the ash-heaps is where life, and death, occurs. Tom, Daisy, Jordan, and, yes, even Nick, fly from one side of the world to another. As they blissfully dismiss the effluent of their actions, the rest of the world is left to clean-up. Only the strong (rich) survive, while the poor - Myrtle, Wilson, and Jay - are destroyed. Though the past, much to Gatsby's chagrin, may be gone, the celebrations, excesses and profligacy of the few must be paid for; but not by themselves.

But there is a flip-side. Being incapable of death renders the elite unable to live. Yes, Tom and Daisy may retreat into their protective cocoon of wealth, but what will they find there? Another endless carousel of events and gatherings? Intrigues and gossip? More sprees to lament and joys to be paralyzed by? The Great Gatsby is truly an American story: for, only in America, will we continue to mistake this specter of existence for a desirable life, time and again.

It is entirely reasonable to chide Gatsby for his optimism; for his stubborn efforts towards creating the world around him as he thinks someone else idealizes it. Tom is right: Gatsby can never be like them. And so, his insistence upon reliving times gone-by overlooks the price that must be paid for the past. Living demands dying, and Gatsby always wanted to live. The desire to witness another, brighter day, requires the willingness to risk - to stumble and even fail. George, Jay and Myrtle dared to dream a new life, and paid for it. There is much that conspires against change; against a brighter tomorrow. Transformation is not received, it is won. Are the risks worth it, knowing the possibility of failure? We cannot simply wish that tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms out further - the yearning hope for a better world, employing our same capabilities, continually yields the past.

American Indian Ecology - J. Donald Hughes

Europeans and American Indians suffer from such a fundamental disconnect concerning the relationship between people and the natural world, that they are unable to speak meaningfully across cultural boundaries. Such a disconnect was on-display at treaty negotiations and throughout the process of land settlement disputes, as Europeans settled North America. More crucial still was the victory of the Western mindset and subsequent subsuming of American Indian cultural ethos and ways of knowing. If American Indians had anything to teach the West about potential alternatives for how people and the world would interact, that message has all but disappeared.

But not entirely.

J. Donald Hughes looks across a plethora of American Indian cultural experiences (while acknowledging the fundamental differences between them) and communicates alternative ways of living in the world that were every bit as rational and tested as the Western-scientific approach. To casually dismiss an entire people, who inhabited all available environments and developed complex and responsive ways of living within them, is, most innocently, dismissive, and, at worst, a willing and continued cultural genocide. Upon what premises do we assume that American Indians have nothing to tell us about living in the world? While Hughes may oversell the benevolence of American Indians in relation to their habitat, and overlook a broader historical contexualization, his work represent a marginalized voice, in need of a platform. American Indian ways of living have much to say about finding our place within the world; this is, perhaps, more important than ever.