Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




Total Pageviews

Monday, September 29, 2014

THREE CHEERS FOR JEREMY BENTHAM


Utilitarianism is far and away the most attractive and popular moral principle ever put forward by a serious philosopher, but it gets very little respect from most in the philosophical profession.  Leaving aside the rather more sophisticated objections of Parfit and others [Parfit, by the way,  fifty years ago or so submitted to me at Columbia a one hundred and ten page paper defending act utilitarianism in a course he was not even taking for credit -- there were giants in the earth in those days, as the Good Book says], there are several seemingly crippling objections to the form of utilitarianism advanced by Jeremy Bentham in his Introduction to Principles of Morals and Legislation [1789].

Bentham's formula, which as everyone knows is usually referred to as the Greatest Happiness Principle, calls upon us to choose that act or law which promises to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of persons, each one to count for one.  If the principle is construed in what seems the natural way as meaning that we must try to make each person as happy as we can, then it is in general impossible to comply with, because it commands us to maximize each person's utility function simultaneously, and save in special circumstances, it is impossible to maximize two or more functions at once.  If, on the other hand, we understand the principle as calling on us to maximize the total happiness in society, each person's happiness or unhappiness being given the same weight, than there are all manner of objections that appear upon consideration to be absolutely crushing.  Even if we ignore the really hairy problems introduced by taking into account the happiness of future generations [problems for whose elaboration Parfit is quite famous], it seems manifestly wrong to impose pain on a few innocent folks in order to reap increased pleasure for the many -- just the sort of consideration that led John Rawls to advance his Theory of Justice.

Because philosophers have spent so much time exposing the theoretical weaknesses of utilitarianism, it is difficult for us today to recall just how revolutionary the Greatest Happiness Principle was, and was intended to be, when Bentham first articulated it.  The truly radical part of the principle was not the identification of pleasure with the good -- by the late eighteenth century, there was a hedonist tradition in ethical theory going back at least two thousand years.  No, what really upset the applecart was the specification, "each one to count for one."  The problem, you see, was that the principle gave the same weight to the pains and pleasures of peasants as it gave to those of aristocrats.  To be sure, one could argue, as many did, that because aristocrats had such refined sensibilities they were likely to suffer excruciating pain from bodily insults that rough peasants would scarcely notice [a theory immortalized in the Hans Christian Andersen story, The Princess and the Pea.]  But there were so many peasants and so few aristocrats!  Even the dullest dukes and duchesses could see that once you began adding up pleasures and pains à la Bentham, the interests of the masses were going to outweigh those of the classes.  Indeed, Bentham's principle, as he quite well intended, constituted a very powerful argument for democratic government resting on universal suffrage.  [Strictly speaking, to get to that conclusion required adding the lemma that each person is the best judge of his or her own pain and pleasure, an assumption with which Bentham was comfortable but that proved a bridge too far for his godson John Stuart Mill.]

But the real problem, which was clearly understood by a great many bright economists, was that utilitarianism seemed ineluctably to lead us to an endorsement of a far-reaching redistribution of income.  After the so-called marginalist triple revolution of the 1870's, economists were prone to claim that individuals have declining marginal utility for wealth.  This means, roughly, that the richer you are, the less pleasure you get from each additional dollar you can lay your hands on.  This is certainly plausible [although you can consult a classical article by Milton Friedman and Leonard Savage for some objections and quibbles], but the principle of declining marginal utility was really embraced because it made all the math so lovely.  The problem was that if you take a dollar away from a Ritchie Rich and give it to a poor minimum wage worker, the pain suffered by the toff because of the loss will be less than the pleasure gained by the working stiff, and that will increase the total happiness of society.  Well, that was clearly an unacceptable inference!  Modern economics did not come into existence to justify Robin Hood policies of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor.

As it has so often in the past, Philosophy came to the rescue, this time by discovering the problem of Other Minds.  Each of us, Philosophy decided, John Donne to the contrary notwithstanding, is an island, incapable of establishing more than the most indirect communication with the other islands in the sea of humanity.  Whew!  Close call!  If I cannot ever really know what is going on in your mind, then I cannot measure your pains and pleasures against my own, establish a common unit of measurement, and add them all up.  Capitalism was saved, and economists could go back to elaborating elegant mathematical structures confident that in so doing they would not be burning the house down.  Thus sprang up indifference curves, production possibility frontiers, general equilibria, and all the other gems of the modern Economics profession.  Here is the classic statement of this saving argument as stated in that old classic, An Essay on The Nature and Significance of Economic Science by Lionel Lord Robbins in 1932:

"There is no way of comparing the satisfactions of different people. ... Hence the extension of the Law of Diminishing Marginal utility, postulated in the propositions we are examining, is illegitimate. ...The conception of diminishing relative utility (the convexity downwards of the indifference curve) does not justify the inference that transferences from the rich to the poor will increase total satisfaction."  [selected from pages 140-141 of The Essay.]

But if this seemingly sensible inference is illegitimate, what are we left with?  Well, to lapse into tech talk, we are left with unanimity partial orderings, which are said to exhibit, after Vilfredo Pareto, Pareto Optimality.  In brief, any change that makes at least someone better off [higher on his or her Indifference Curve] without making anyone worse off, is clearly preferable [assuming no envy, which is why Rawls sticks in that odd caveat.] 

Apologists for capitalism, which is to say professional economists, showing a positive genius for propaganda, call this state of affairs "efficient."  I mean, who on earth could be against efficiency, especially in America?  So the present distribution of wealth and income is efficient, so long as taking a dollar away from a billionaire and giving it to a poor man makes the billionaire even the slightest bit less happy.  Unless, of course, the transfer has the all-round happy effect of somehow increasing the total output of the society so that the billionaire can be given his dollar back [or, more likely, a million dollars back] while also leaving enough to give the poor man an extra crust of bread, which will, ex hypothesi, move him a tad up his indifference curve.  [They give Nobel Prizes for this stuff.  I think astrologers should complain.] 

Which brings me back to Bentham and the reason why I started this extended rant.  For all its manifest flaws, utilitarianism is the only ethical theory that actually tells me how to think about one of the hardest questions in political theory and public life:  How can I judge which of the innumerable outrages that assault me deserve my closest attention?  How can I tell whether a complex policy pursued in a complex world is making things better or worse?  Was a homophobic America that treated African-Americans and women as second-class citizens a worse or a better place than an America in which the condition of African-Americans, women, and the LGBT community has dramatically improved, but in which income inequality has soared, the state routinely tortures its political prisoners, and labor unions are dying?  Save by means of some sort of "felicific calculus" [to use the old-fashioned term], I do not know how to begin thinking about this question.

So let's hear it for old Jeremy Bentham.  A wax replica of his head may sit atop his skeleton stuffed with hay and clad in his own clothes, but his heart was in the right place.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

AN ASTOUNDING DISCOVERY

It being a rather slow Sunday, I was amusing myself by checking in on some academic blogs, such as that run by English economist Simon Wren-Lewis, and I made an astonishing discovery.  Not every academic who maintains an intellectually oriented blog puts up a new post every day!  Who knew?  This is a very great relief to me.  Now that I have come to terms with the fact that this blog is, in my retirement, my job, as it were, I have felt a heavy weight of responsibility to write something thoughtful, arcane, and original every single day.  That is a terrible burden to carry around, and I have been much weighed down by it.  I am now seriously contemplating cutting myself a little slack.

The inner voice of compulsion is not new to me, as I have remarked in my Autobiography.  I recall what was said many years ago at a mid-Western college by the Professor who had agreed to  introduce me for a talk I was giving there.  "Professor Wolff," he said, "joined the Book-of-the-Month Club a while back, but he failed to understand the instructions that came with his membership card.  On the card it said he was obligated to buy at least three books a year but he misread it as saying that he was required to write three books a year, and he has been doing his best to obey ever since."

From now on, if invention fails from time to time, I shall pour myself a glass of wine and relax.

MORNING MAUNDERINGS


During my walk this morning, I found myself thinking back many decades to my undergraduate days and the effect on me of studying, when I was so young, with Willard van Orman Quine.  I have already told a number of stories about Quine in my Autobiography, so I shan't rehearse them here, but as I neared the end of my walk, I recalled the great opening paragraph of Quine's famous essay, "On What There Is," whose laconic style so perfectly captured Quine's character.  For those of you who do not know the essay, here it is:

"A curious thing about the ontological problem is its simplicity.  It can be put in three Anglo-Saxon monosyllables: 'What is there?'  It can be answered, moreover, in a word -- 'Everything' -- and everyone will accept this answer as true.  However, this is merely to say that there is what there is.  There remains room for disagreement over cases, and so the issue has stayed alive down the centuries." 

I wonder sometimes whether I was not influenced, as a young undergraduate, by this bare style in my own writing.  Later in the same essay, when he is discussing the views of an imaginary philosopher whom he calls "Wyman,"  [to contrast him with Mr. X], Quine says that Wyman's "over-populated universe" [which has in it possible entities as well as actual entities] "offends the aesthetic sense of us who have a taste for desert landscapes."

This naturally reminded me of Eric Erickson's fascinating observation that people have styles in dreaming -- some of us always have Technicolor dreams stuffed full of images and events, while others have spare Black and White dreams, regardless of the meaning of the dreams.

The Quine opening paragraph also reminded me of other striking opening lines -- "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."  "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."  And of course the most famous first line in all literature:  "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."

My mind, like that of Tristram Shandy, being prone to digression, I soon found myself thinking of favorite lines from movies, and since we leave in just seven days for Paris, I thought quite naturally of Casablanca.  Casablanca offers not one but three immortal lines along with a fourth that does not actually appear in the movie.  "We'll always have Paris" is the signature line of the movie, but "Round up the usual suspects" runs a close second, giving us the name of the great Kevin Spacey movie.  And then, of course, there is the last line of the movie, "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."  The line that does not actually appear is "Play it again, Sam."

Humphrey Bogart's closing remark to Claude Raines reminded me of my personal favorite last line of any movie.  It comes from Men in Black.  Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith have just defeated a giant intergalactic cockroach, played with brilliance in an over-the-top performance by Vincent D'Onofrio.  Jones and Smith are getting ready to leave Flushing Meadow with Smith's new love interest and future Woman in Black Linda Fiorentino when a call comes in of trouble with some planet somewhere.  Jones says, "Call Dennis Rodman."  Fiorentino asks, "Is he from there?" and when Jones says yes, Fiorentino delivers the great throwaway last line:  "Not much of a disguise."

Tha-tha-that's all folks.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

NEVER A DULL MOMENT

Well, I posted a rumination about the higher meaning of my writing, went down to the first floor to get the mail, and promptly got stuck in the elevator coming back up to the third floor.  A big bump, a smaller bump, and it stopped dead between the floors.  I pressed the emergency phone button on the elevator command panel [it worked!], reported the problem ["Help is one the way," the lady said], and waited.  While I waited, I learned that contrary to every movie I have ever seen, you cannot pry the door open from the inside.  Also, though there is what appears to be a trap door in the ceiling, I am way too short to reach it.  After fifteen minutes, during which I called Susie to let her know where I was [good old reliable cell phone], the elevator started up, stopped at the second floor, and the door opened.  I jumped out.  The elevator door closed and the entire elevator system went dead.  Rather like being swallowed by a big fish that decides I am not tasty and egests me.  I think now I know how Jonah may have felt.

For what it is worth, the elevator inspector in this part of North Carolina is named Cherry Berry, according to the inspection sticker in the elevator -- not a name to inspire confidence.  It could as well be a new Ben and Jerry flavor.

WHAT I DO


I was introduced to serious philosophy sixty-four years ago, when I was a sixteen year old Freshman at Harvard,  by two of the leading analytic philosophers of the middle of the twentieth century, Willard van Orman Quine and Nelson Goodman.  Their standards of clarity and precision in the explanation of formal ideas and arguments made a lasting impression on me.  And yet I have, all my life, been drawn to what I found to be the deeper insights of thinkers whose writings did not always comport with the rather stringent standards of clarity urged by the best analytic philosophers.  Rather than give up those insights, I have throughout my long career sought to articulate them in ways that remained true to them while also achieving the clarity I came to admire in the work of Quine and many others.  Looking back now on all that I have written, I realize that this quest has been my dominant philosophical impulse.

It began, of course, with my struggle to make clear to myself the complex and very deep arguments in the Transcendental Analytic of the Critique of Pure Reason, but the same impulse led me to write the chapter on "Community" in an early book, The Poverty of Liberalism, as well as my critical book on Rawls' A Theory of Justice [Understanding Rawls], my two books on Marx [Moneybags Must Be So Lucky and Understanding Marx], my highly critical journal articles on Bob Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia and Jon Elster's Making Sense of Marx, and much else besides. 

As a frequent commentator on this blog, Andrew Blais, can attest, I liked to say in my lectures on the Deduction of the Pure Concepts of Understanding of the Critique that a metaphor is not an argument, so that until we can explain exactly what Kant means when he describes synthesis as a "running through and holding together of a manifold in one concept." we do not understand the Critique.  The most original and important contribution of my first book on Kant was precisely the unpacking of that metaphor, which then enabled me to state clearly in the forms of elementary logic Kant's central argument, something that no commentator before me had succeeded in doing.  The same impulse led me to struggle with Chapter One of Capital until I could explain clearly, precisely, and non-metaphorically what Marx means by his extended talk about the Equivalent and the Relative Forms of Value [an explication I enlivened by exhibiting the formal similarity of Marx's exposition to an old Jewish joke.]

Speaking generally, my work has been a constant effort to show that we can preserve and learn from the insights of the great philosophers and social theorists of the Western tradition without reducing them simplistically to one-dimensional caricatures, while at the same time refusing to  succumb to the temptation to sink into the bafflegab of a Hegel. 

As Kierkegaard says in what by now you must realize is one of my favorite works, the Philosophical Fragments, we must shun "a state of ineffable bliss in what might be called the howling madness of the higher lunacy, recognizable by such symptoms as convulsive shouting; a constant reiteration of the words 'era,' 'epoch,' 'era and epoch,' 'the System' ... "

Only rarely have I undertaken in my writing to state and defend new ideas, rather than to clarify those I have found in the writings of others -- mostly notably in In Defense of Anarchism, but also in The Ideal of the University, and perhaps in The Poverty of Liberalism [three books that I published in the space of three years.]

Although I have frequently written about controversial authors and subjects, my greatest pleasure comes from the aesthetic gratification of a complex idea rendered clear and simple.  Some who read what I have written confuse simplicity with superficiality, rather like a reader who cannot distinguish between Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov and Prince Myshkin in The Idiot. 

It is said of Michelangelo that he went one day to the palace of a Prince to seek a commission for a work of art.  When the Prince asked to see a sample of his work, Michelangelo picked up a piece of charcoal, went to a blank wall, and freehand drew an absolutely perfect circle.  I have sometimes fantasized that if I were a violist auditioning behind a screen for a position in a great orchestra, I would want to play nothing but a simple three octave C major scale, so perfectly in tune and with so rich and seamless a tone as only a transcendently great violist can produce.  When I am at my best in my writing, it is that perfect simplicity and beauty to which I aspire.

ANALYTICAL MARXISM

Enzo Rossi asked me about Analytical Marxism, and I replied.  Now, one of the oddities of old age, I find, is that although I seem to be able to recall in excruciating detail experiences I had sixty years ago and more -- hence my endless story-telling -- I seem not to be able to recall what I have written and published with anything like the same precision.  Having arisen at a bit after midnight, as I do most nights for an hour or more, I thought to re-read an essay I wrote about Jan Elster's book on Marx twenty-five years ago or so.  It is, I say without a shred of false modesty, a brilliant critique of Analytical Marxism.  If anyone is still interested in the subject, I strongly recommend it.  It can be found archived at box.net by following the link at the top of this page.  Inasmuch as I wrote it but did not remember its contents, it is an interesting question whether I can be said to have known what the article said before I re-read it.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

MORE ON LANGUAGE AND SOCIAL REALITY


In this post, I shall expand somewhat on my remarks in the last few posts concerning the relationship between social reality and the language used to try to capture that reality.  For those who are interested in this subject, I strongly recommend reading Erich Auerbach's classic book, Mimesis, one of the greatest works of humanist scholarship ever written.  Through a nuanced analysis of passages selected from works of the Western literary tradition, ranging from the Odyssey and the Old and New Testaments to the Chanson de Roland and Decameron all the way to the novels of the nineteenth century, Auerbach shows us in elegant detail the relationship between the linguistic devices employed by a writer and the conception of social reality that he or she seeks to convey.  For example, if the author of the Chanson de Roland has available only bare parataxis [the stringing together of atomic sentences with the conjunction "and"] it is virtually impossible for him to convey a flexible, perspectival rendering of a social interaction.  But by the time Boccaccio is writing the Decameron, the Italian he has available to him allows him, in a single sentence, to capture a scene from several points of view at once, by the use of complex syntactic devices such as subordinate clauses, embedded parenthetical asides, and so forth.

Auerbach teaches us that an author must have linguistic tools adequate to the social complexity he or she seeks to represent.  One of his most striking paired textual contrasts is the recognition scene from The Odyssey [in which a disguised Odysseus, home from his wanderings, is recognized by his old maid because of a scar on his leg] and the passage from Genesis in which God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.  [For an equally great but utterly different treatment of this famous passage, see Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling.]  To the author of The Odyssey, social reality is completely on the surface, open to view, equanimous.  But to the author of Genesis, reality is complex, many-layered, with hidden depths and inaccessible heights, from which a God can speak directly and without intermediation to a man and command incomprehensible things.

With these few remarks as background, it is interesting to contrast the language of the great classical Political Economists -- Adam Smith, David Ricardo,  John Stuart Mill -- with that of Marx in Capital.  The language of Ricardo -- to choose the greatest of them -- is a serviceable, limpid prose, transparent, clear, easily penetrated by the mind.  Ricardo believes that the market presents us with puzzles, some of which he is able to solve -- most famously, the nature of land rent -- and some of which he is unable to solve -- notably the determination of price in cases in which the quantity of labor directly and indirectly required for production is not the same in all lines of production.  But the market does not present us with mysteries.  Those are reserved for the throne or the altar.  But by the nineteenth century, the cool breezes of Enlightenment Reason have dispelled the clouds of mystery in the church and the palace, leaving only the puzzles of the marketplace to be solved by careful analysis and observation.  Marx, in contrast, is convinced that the capitalist market is as mystified as ever the altar was;  indeed, more so, for the market's greatest victory is to present itself as unmystified while in fact utterly befuddling both participants in the market and those seeking to understand it.

Now Marx could have written Capital à l'anglaise, as it were.  This is demonstrated by the existence of a little pamphlet, Value, Price, and Profit which Marx actually wrote in English in the period when he was preparing Volume One to publication.  In that little work, his language is indistinguishable from that of Ricardo.  So Marx's decision to write Capital in a completely different sort of prose cannot be explained, as I put it in Moneybags, by the theory that he had contracted a nearly fatal case of Hegelism as a youth which left him linguistically crippled and hence unable to write like an Englishman.  My hypothesis in Moneybags, which makes perfect sense of his literary choices, is that he had a complex conception of social reality, the articulation of which required a discourse both ironic and filled with allusions to the literary, religious, and cultural legacy of Western Civilization.

But if that is what he thought, why not just say so?  Well, I have explained that also in Moneybags.  The answer, not at all simple, is that he understood himself to be embedded in the mystifications and ideological delusions of capitalism and hence needed a language that could at one and the same time express those mystifications and call them into question.  In that way, he could accurately render his own situation and that of all thoughtful, reflective, revolutionary men and women trapped in a capitalist economy and society.
How then can we liberate ourselves from these mystifications?  Not merely by writing about them, Marx thought.  For, as he reminded us in the famous Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach, "Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

ONE MORE ATTEMPT


Judging from Tony Couture's responses to my explication of ironic discourse, there may be some folks out there who still have questions about the relation between what a social theorist is saying and the language he or she chooses with which to convey it.  Now, as I mentioned, I wrote an entire short book about this subject in its relation to Capital, and anyone really interested in the subject would do well to take a look at Moneybags Must Be So Lucky, but perhaps a story from long ago will help shed a little light on the matter.

In 1961, I left my Instructorship at Harvard and took up an Assistant Professorship in at the University of Chicago.  The glory days of the Robert Hutchins era were long over, but elements of that grand educational experiment lingered on, most notably in the form of a required Freshman Year Humanities survey course and a required Sophomore Year Social Sciences survey course.  Since I had a doctorate in Philosophy and had a book about to be published on the First Critique, I was naturally assigned a section of the Social Sciences survey.  [Only those with first-hand experience of the old Chicago will understand why "naturally' here is not meant sarcastically.]  The course was taught entirely in sections, but from time to time the sections would gather for a guest lecture.  This story is about one of those occasions. 

The middle of the twentieth century was the heyday of Cultural Anthropology, when it was expected that a young Anthropologist would go off to a distant land, find himself or herself a small group of "primitive" people [which is to say, people who did not wear shoes and lacked advanced killing devices], learn their language, and spend two years or more studying their material culture, their religion, their kinship practices, and their child-rearing patterns.  The  aspiring academic would then return home, write up the notes carefully accumulated, and ever after would be known as an expert on the Trobriand Islanders or whomever.  Think Margaret Mead or Bronisŀaw Malinowski.

The guest lecture this day was given by a member of the Chicago Anthropology Department who had spent some time, accompanied by his students, pub-crawling in the Chicago neighborhood known as the Near North Side.  [The U of C was in South Side Chicago, a tad closer to downtown than the large African-American community immortalized in the great classic of Urban Sociology, Black Metropolis, by Horace Cayton and St. Clair Drake.]  The speaker proceeded to describe the people and establishments his team had visited, using the typical academic language of the Cultural Anthropologist -- just as though he were reporting on a trip to the Kalahari or the Amazon Rain Forest.  The effect was bizarre and electrifying.

The students were quite familiar with the bars and nightclubs the speaker and his team had visited [as were even some of the professors], but his description sounded not at all like what they knew.  At first, I was puzzled by the lecture, but then it dawned on me [and, I hope, on the students as well] what the speaker was doing.  He was getting us to imagine how a typical research report  might sound to a member of a "tribe" being anatomized in the pages of the professional journals of Cultural Anthropology.  The objectifying scientific language cultivated by the Anthropologists was distorting and misrepresenting the cultural reality they were striving to capture.

This is not the place to expand on this insight.  All I can do is to recommend two books to those who wish to pursue it.  The first is the most famous novel by the great Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart, perhaps the first novel to capture the felt experiences of sub-Saharan Africans from their point of view.  The second, which I have discussed at length in my tutorial on Ideological Critique, is Land Filled With Flies, by Edwin Wilmsen.

Now, very simply:  Marx seeks at one and the same time to anatomize the mystifications of capitalist society and economy and to convey what it is like to be captured by those mystifications, to experience them from the inside, as it were, so that one can understand what would be required to dispel them.  His strategy for performing this complex literary and intellectual task is irony.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A REPLY TO DEREK


Derek has responded to my request for clarification [and in the interim I managed to access the blog he referred to], so I now understand what I need to explain in order to reply to his request.  I invite anyone interested in this post to read Derek's comment on the preceding post before continuing to read this one.

I must begin by explaining the nature of ironic discourse.  The term "ironically' is quite often used loosely and incorrectly to mean something like "not seriously" or "just kidding."  Now, I do not mean to be -- to appropriate Seinfeld's classic phrase -- the usage Nazi, but unless we all really understand the nature and structure of ironic discourse, what I have to say about Capital and Marx's language therein will be simply mysterious.

Irony is a mode of discourse that presupposes a double audience -- an apparent audience and a real audience.  It thus relies in an essential way on Plato's distinction between appearance and reality, a distinction that he bequeathed to the entire philosophical enterprise.  When a statement is uttered ironically, the speaker intends to convey two meanings that are related as appearance to reality.  The apparent meaning is heard by the first, or apparent, audience, which mistakenly thinks that it has understood everything that the speaker means to communicate.  The deeper, real, meaning is heard by the real audience, which also hears and understands the apparent meaning.  The real audience also knows that the apparent audience exists, and has heard only the apparent meaning, which it has mistaken for the real meaning.  Thus, one might say, the ironic utterance is a private joke between the speaker and the real audience at the expense of the apparent audience.  It is this complex structure of the communicative situation that distinguishes irony from ambiguity or mere confusion.

An example will, I trust, make this clear.  I take this example from the first edition of a textbook I wrote forty years or so ago.  A young man and a young woman are having a secret love affair.  The young woman lives at home with her very strict parents, who would be horrified were they to learn of the affair.  One evening, the young man comes to pick up the young woman at her home, ostensibly to take her to a church social, but really to return to his apartment for an evening of love-making.  As the young woman puts on her coat, her mother says, "Be home by ten.  And remember to be a good girl."  The young woman says, "Yes, Mama.  I'll be good," and off they go.  Just before ten, the young man brings the young woman home, where they are met by the mother.  "Were you a good girl?" the mother asks.  "Oh yes," says the young man.  "She was good.  She was very good."

The ironic utterance is "She was good.  She was very good."  The apparent audience is the mother, who hears the apparent meaning, which is that the young woman was chaste.  The real audience is the young woman, who hears and understands the apparent meaning, and also hears the real meaning, which is a compliment on her sexual virtuosity.  The couple are, as it were, laughing at the mother and sharing their privileged access to the deeper meaning of the utterance.

Well, that was fun.  What does this all have to do with Karl Marx, Das Kapital, and classical Political Economy?  As I observed, I wrote a book about this.  In fact, I wrote two books about it, plus a very technical journal article, so this will be no more than a brief précis.  But one does what one can on a blog.

First of all, you must keep in mind that Marx, in contrast to Smith, Ricardo, and the other classical Political Economists, thinks capitalism is thoroughgoingly mystified.  Not puzzling, or complex, or difficult to understand without a graduate degree in Economics, but mystified.  It presents itself as transparent, free of the magic and incense and Latin gobbledygook of Christianity, whereas in fact it is more thoroughly mystified than either the alter or the throne ever was.  Like the novels of Charles Dickens [which Marx loved], capitalism is a world in which people are treated as things and things take on the lineaments of people.  Capitalism is an economic system built on exploitation that presents itself to the eye as an exchange of equals for equals.  As Marx writes bitterly at the very end of Part II of Capital, Volume One, the marketplace in which "the sale and purchase of labour-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man.  There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property, and Bentham."

The Labour Theory of Value presented in its initial form by Adam Smith and revised and improved by David Ricardo is a theoretical explanation of the structure of relative prices observed in a capitalist marketplace and also the basis for explaining how the annual social product is divided among the three great classes of society, the Landed Interest, Capitalists, and Wage Laborers.  Marx thinks the theory, once it has been further revised to solve problems understood but not solved by Ricardo, is true of capitalism.  But because capitalism itself is ideologically mystified, the truth about capitalism is a surface truth, an apparent truth, that conceals the deeper reality of exploitation.

Why not just say that flat out, as I just did?  Why write ironically?  Because -- and this is the key to understanding Capital, I believe -- all of us who live in this society are implicated in capitalism and at some level mystified by it.  Hence I can express my understanding of the reality of capitalism only because I am myself a complex being capable of understanding the deeper reality of capitalism while yet being unable to free myself from its mystifications.  In Moneybags, I use the example of a lapsed Catholic for whom the Apostle's Creed still retains an emotional power to illustrate this complex subjective situation.

The mystification of monarchy resides in the throne and its appurtenances.  The mystification of religion resides in the altar and its appurtenances.  The mystification of capitalism resides in the commodity.  That is why the very first words of Capital are:  "The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as 'an immense accumulation of commodities,' its unit being a single commodity.  Our investigation must therefore begin with the analysis of a commodity."

Marx thinks that the statements he makes about commodities are crack-brained, verrückt.  But nevertheless he thinks they are true of capitalism, because capitalism is itself crack-brained. 

So, if all of this is ironic, who are the real and apparent audiences?  Well, the apparent audience is the great throng of Political Economists whom Marx calls "Vulgar Economists" [among whom, by the way, he does not include Smith and Ricardo -- he had great respect for them.]  Also, all of us who live in a capitalist society, experiencing commodities as quanta of value and workers as mere producers of abstract socially necessary labour.  The real audience is Marx and those of his readers who can grasp the inner reality of the mystifications of capitalism, INCLUDING MARX HIMSELF AND THOSE READERS IN THE KNOW.  All of us are in the grip of the mystifications of capitalism and all of us, Marx included, live our lives day to day according to those mystified appearances.  Were we to attempt not to do so, we would stumble about in the marketplace like the character in the Allegory of the Cave who reenters the cave after having seen the sun, only to be blinded by the darkness -- or, to choose a more recent literary example, like Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov. 

I hope that explains things a bit, Derek.

REQUEST FOR CLARIFICATION

Derek posts this comment:  "Hope you're enjoying the trip!  Perhaps you could say something on the suggestion that Marx employs the LTV ironically (http://slackwire.blogspot.ca/2014/09/piketty-and-money-view-reply-to-mrmister.html). Seems implausible to me, but I'll also confess that I'd never even entertained its possibility until just now, so maybe it will grow on me. Since you've written interesting things on irony and the LTV in Marx, maybe you'd indulge us (me) in taking this up?"

I am always happy to oblige, but I am a trifle puzzled.  Does Derek want me to talk about the question whether the Labor Theory of Value is employed by Marx ironically, something which he notes I have already written about?  Or does he want  me to respond to whatever is at the site for which he offers a URL?  I copied the link and pasted it into my command line, but up popped an error message.  As for the subject itself, I have indeed written an entire small book about it.  Does Derek want me to summarize what I said there?

A little clarity, please.

Monday, September 22, 2014

MY GRANDDAUGHTER


Here is a curious fact that seems to call into question one of the fundamental assumptions of Rational Choice Theory:  It is an indisputable fact that my granddaughter is cuter than anyone else's granddaughter.  Everyone I know thinks that his or her granddaughter is cuter than my granddaughter.  This ought to generate a contradiction, but it does not.  Both assertions are true.

By the way, now that Athena is six, she has graduated from Candyland and Go Fish to Backgammon.  But she is still a shark.  I would not recommend getting into a money Backgammon game with her.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

OFF TO SF

I am leaving this morning for San Francisco to see my son, Patrick, and his family [including Samuel, 8, and Athena, 6.]  I shall be back very late Sunday night, so blogging will recommence on Monday.  By then, Scotland either will or will not have chosen to break free from the United Kingdom.  This one is very big for NotHobbes.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

BRIEF THOUGHTS ON A SLOW DAY

After baring my soul, as it were, in my reply to Ludwig Richter, I find myself without a large question to motivate an extended blog post today, so this will be some fugitive thoughts that have occurred to me as I prepare to fly out to San Francisco tomorrow to see my son and daughter-in-law and two grandchildren.  I learned today that six-year-old Athena is a Daisy -- a precursor to Brownies, which is the feeder to Girl Scouts.  I was completely unaware of The Daisys [or Daisies?].  The big treat this weekend will be a Saturday soccer game in which Athena will play.  Needless to say, I shall be cheering from the sidelines.

First Thought:  ISIS [or ISIL] is barbaric and appalling, but it constitutes no threat at all to the safety and integrity of the United States.  President Obama's decision to declare war on ISIS is a mistake, and it will poison what remains of his presidency as well as the presidency of Hillary Clinton.  There was no rational justification for the decision, and no political need for it either.

Second Thought:  Hillary Clinton will almost certainly be the next president.  She is completely in thrall to Wall Street, and is more hawkish by far than Obama.  She is reliable and correct on all the social issues, especially regarding women's reproductive health.  That is not nothing -- women are the majority in America -- but it is far from being enough.  She will also be far less of a disaster than anyone nominated by the Republicans [including Rand Paul -- don't kid yourself about that.]

Third Thought:  I like Sam Wang more than Nate Silver.  [This is inside baseball.  Look it up.]

Fourth Thought:  If I am ever diagnosed with terminal cancer, I am going to go out and buy a jar of peanut butter, which I will then proceed to eat.  I have not had peanut butter in years.

Fifth Thought:  After years of frustration and disappointment, I am now one cellist away from pulling together a string quartet for playing the classical literature.  My fondest hope is that by the time I get back from our October in Paris, the quartet will be a reality.

RESPONSES TO SOME INTERESTING COMMENTS

1.  To Ludwig Richter:  How fortunate you were to have the opportunity to study with -- as my colleagues called him -- Jimmy Baldwin.  When I joined the Afro-American Studies Department at UMass I discovered that my office had once been occupied by Baldwin!  I felt that I was walking in the footsteps of giants.  My teaching is, I think, a form of gift-giving.  It is, though it sounds pretentious to say, an act of love.  Incidentally,  part of that gift-giving is a showing of myself.  It always amused me that in the end-of-semester student evaluation forms that I would receive back after the end of each class, there appeared repeatedly the complaint, "talks too much about his family."  It never stopped me.

2.   To Tony Couture:  Your take on Rawls is radically different from mine, but I would not dream of trying to talk you out of it.  You have made out of Rawls the man and his work an entirely different construction from mine.  I am not sure how successfully you can appeal to it to make clear passages or arguments that are otherwise mysterious -- which is always my test for myself when I am evaluating my own interpretation of a difficult text.  But then, you may have a quite different measure of success.  I think I can spot an interpretation of a text that is just flat out wrong, but with any powerful text, there can be many alternative readings.  That is one reason why we keep reading Plato rather than simply accepting Aristotle's view of the man and his philosophy [after all, who in the history of philosophy would be better suited to judge!]

3.  To Jerry Fresia:  My judgments are disinterested at least in this sense -- I care very much that my students see the ideas in their clarity, purity, rigor, and thus beauty, but not at all that they embrace the conclusions of the arguments that constitute those ideas and believe their theses.  My goal in this course coming up is most certainly not to make the students Marxists, but to lead them to grasp the complex understanding I arrived at in what I call my "vision." 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

HOW DO I TEACH? A REPLY TO LUDWIG RICHTER


Ludwig Richter [himself a teacher] writes:  "Professor Wolff, I would love it if, in a future post, you would talk about what kind of teaching you do in the protected space of your classroom. You lecture, of course, but I take it that you lead discussions and encourage students to offer their interpretations of texts, and so on. Maybe you could write about that some time?"

As you will have noticed, it takes very little to get me started, so herewith an extended meditation on my teaching -- not on teaching, mind, but on my teaching.  I imagine that what I say will bear very little resemblance to what others might say about their teaching. 

 Standing in front of a group of people and talking at them is a rather inadequate technique for communicating information.  In the twelfth century, when European universities got their start, books were scarce and very expensive, so probably a professor willing to lecture was as close as most students came to a library.  Indeed, I have read that even in the nineteenth century, in rural areas of Italy where the peasants were too poor to buy books and the communities to poor to build schoolhouses and supply them with blackboards, priests would stand in a field facing a group of little boys and write in the air.  The boys had to learn to read what the priest "wrote" inverted [which calls to mind the great old line about Ginger Rogers, that she had to do everything Fred Astaire did backwards, and in heels -- but I digress.]  Today, however, even students from poor families have far better ways of accessing information.  So there is really not much point in using a classroom to pass along facts that the students could get at faster on their phones.  Fortunately, in Philosophy there is actually very little information to transmit, and what there is [Descartes' birth date, how old Kant was when he wrote The First Critique] doesn't matter very much.

So if I am not telling the students stuff, what am I doing when I stand in front of them [or sit, as I shall be doing next semester ]?  Well, my answer is rather odd, and utterly idiosyncratic.  What is more, it took me three decades of teaching before I came to understand it.

Let me start by saying that I am not trying to persuade my students of anything.  Although I frequently teach politically and ideologically charged texts [as I shall be doing next semester], it is never my aim to get my students to believe either what it says in the books I assign or what I say in my lectures.  As Kierkegaard says in the inexpressibly poignant Preface to The Philosophical Fragments, "If anyone were to be so polite as to assume that I have an opinion, and if he were to carry his gallantry to the extreme of adopting this opinion because he believed it to be mine, I should have to be sorry for his politeness, in that it was bestowed upon so unworthy an object, and for his opinion, if he has no other opinion than mine."

What I am doing in my teaching, to put it as simply as I can, is showing beautiful objects to my students in the hope that they will give to the students the same pleasure that they give me.  I conceive this effort on my part as an act of love, not of propaganda, or inculcation, or persuasion.

The beautiful objects I show to my students are ideas -- complex ideas, powerful ideas, elegant ideas.  Quite often, it costs me enormous effort and much time to clarify these ideas in my own mind, to extract them from the surroundings in which I come upon them, and then to find a way to show them forth in their simplicity and beauty.  Only then am I ready to present them to my students for contemplation, comprehension, and appreciation.  The central argument of the Transcendental Analytic of the Critique of Pure Reason is such an idea.  So is Marx's critique of the ironic structure of capitalism.  The proof of the Fundamental Theorem of Game Theory is such an idea, as is Hume's account of our belief in the existence of the continued and independent existence of objects in space and time.

When I am successful, my students have been offered what I might call, somewhat altering Spinoza's meaning, an intellectual intuition, which is to say an immediate apprehension of an intellectual object.  I rather suspect it is what Plato had in mind when he wrote obscurely of a knowledge of the Form of the Good.

Is my interpretation of A Treatise of Human Nature or Critique of Pure Reason of Das Kapital correct?  If I am successful, the interpretation is beautiful, and like all truly beautiful objects, powerful.  Are my interpretations the only correct, or beautiful, or powerful readings of those texts?  Of course not.  Indeed, it is a distinctive mark of truly great philosophical texts, like truly great novels, that they can sustain several different and conflicting readings, just as different artists [or even the same artist at different times] can paint different pictures of the same scene, model, or subject.

How can one know whether a reading of a text is powerful or beautiful?  The fruitlessness of the question is manifest.  But I can say this:  if the reading is obscure, convoluted, not immediately graspable by an intelligent and committed reader or listener [in short, if it is by Hegel] then it is neither powerful nor beautiful and is probably not worth spending time on.

That, in a nutshell, is what I do when I teach.  I show beautiful ideas to me students in the [desperate] hope that they will find them beautiful also.  Everything else I do is filler.

Have I been successful?  It is not for me to say.  Is this, Callicles might ask, an honorable way for an old man to spend his time?  I believe so.

MARX AND JUSTICE -- A REPLY TO CHRIS


Chris has sent me an e-mail message asking for my views on Marx and justice, with particular attention to the question why Marx thinks that exploitation is unjust.  Since this may be of more general interest, I have decided to reply here rather than in a private response.  The simple answer to Chris's question is that in my view, Marx did not think that exploitation is unjust, but you had better settle down, because it is going to take me a while to spell this out fully. 

Marx considers the philosophy of a society to be a part of its ideological superstructure, along with its religion, law, and art, among other things.  Moral judgments are a part of the philosophy and law of a society, hence ideological and superstructural as well.  The fundamental principle of bourgeois justice is that equals be given for equals in a free and open marketplace where men [it is always men] meet one another as legal equals, none compelled by law or custom to enter into bargains with another.  The ideal capitalist, Marx argues, pays a fair price for the labor he employs.  He pays a price equivalent to the reproduction cost of that labor, which, as he and Ricardo would say, is equal to the labor value embodied in that labor.  Now, to be sure, capitalists do not play fair.  As Marx tells us in the great chapter on The Working Day, capitalists try such underhanded tricks, in their effort to extract more value from their workers, as fiddling with the clocks in the factory so as to make the workers labor for a bit longer than the contracted for ten or twelve hours.  But this is not exploitation.  This is just cheating.

Exploitation is the extraction from a factor input of more value than is contained within it.  A good deal of Volume One is devoted to discovering how capitalists manage to pull off this trick -- the secret to profit.  Marx's solution -- which, as I have explained at length elsewhere is in my opinion incorrect -- is the distinction between labor and labor power.

But what would socialism have to say about exploitation?  Is it not the case that exploitation is, from a socialist perspective, unjust?  This, Marx thinks, is a fundamentally confused question.  It is as confused as asking whether, from a bourgeois perspective, feudal laws regulating the making and selling of craft goods are unjust.  Exploitation would indeed be unjust in a socialist society, just as exploitation  is just in a bourgeois society.

But from a transhistorical rational point of view, which one is correct -- socialist morality or bourgeois morality?  That, Marx thinks, is a meaningless question.  There is no pou sto, no place to stand from which one can make objective, neutral moral judgments uninfected with the ideological perspective of any particular society.  That is precisely the fatal illusion of such covertly bourgeois ideological rationalizations as the "theory of justice" of John Rawls.

This may sound plausible, but surely it is wrong.  Marx is no bloodless observer of social reality, reporting what he finds without judgment, in the manner affected [self-deceivingly] by modern sociologists and economists.  No one has ever thundered more powerfully against bourgeois injustice than Marx!   Quite true, quite true.  But Marx is not a moralist. 

A descent into armchair psychoanalysis is called for here.  In Victorian England there was a popular parlor game called Confessions.  Each person in the gathering would be asked to state his or her favorites:  favorite color, favorite food, favorite author, favorite literary character.  There are, in the Marx's collected papers, several sheets listing Marx's responses to the game of Confessions.  His favorite trait in men?  Strength.  His favorite trait in women?  Weakness.  [I have this from the great biography, Marx's Fate, by Jerrold Siegel.  You see perhaps why I do not like Marx very much as a human being, for all that I consider him the greatest social scientist who has ever lived.]  Marx hated weakness in men, and considered the making of moral judgments as the last resort of the weak.  To say "That is morally wrong" is implicitly to say, "I am powerless to stop that, so I shall inveigh against it."   [If this makes you think of Nietzsche, you would be right.]

Marx expressed his deep loathing of capitalism not by offering moral condemnations of it -- troubling deaf heaven with his bootless cries, as it were -- but by proving rigorously, scientifically, irrefutably, that it was doomed to self-destruct. 

So, Chris, my response to your question is this:  Marx does not offer an argument that exploitation is morally unjust.  He offers a static scientific analysis of exploitation as essential to capitalism, and a dynamic scientific argument that capitalist exploitation will be replaced with socialism, in which exploitation will play no role.

And will socialism then be a just social and economic order?  Marx does not say.  There are two answers that might be inferred from his analysis of capitalism.  If you think that in a socialist society there will be no ideological superstructure, because all mystification will have been dispelled by revolution, then the answer is that a socialist society will have no need for such ideological apparatuses as moral theory, so the question will be moot.  But if you think that even in a socialist society there will be an ideological superstructure, then you can be certain that from a socialist perspective, socialism will be just, as from a bourgeois perspective capitalism is just.

Monday, September 15, 2014

A DECISION

After thinking about the matter and talking with some folks, I have decided not to record my Marx lectures next Spring.  It simply seems to me to be an instrusion into the protected space of the classroom, and I cannot think of any way to be sure that it would have no chilling effect whatsoever on any of the students.  So if you want to hear the lectures, you have to make your way to Caldwell Hall on the UNC Chapel Hill campus each Wednesday from 1:00 to 3:30 p.m.

ECHOES OF THE DISTANT PAST

From time to time, I write here about the wonders of Google and Wikipedia, which put at my fingertips in an instant a vast array of information.  The young among you may perhaps never have paused to wonder how folks survived before the Internet.  Herewith a glimpse into that past.

Sitting on my desk is a little oblong cardboard bookmark, one of the things I kept when I sorted out the family house after my father passed away in 1981.  He obtained it from the Vleigh Branch Library of the Queens Borough Public Library, a little local library that was then [and indeed still is] only a few blocks from the house in which I lived until I went off to college in 1950.  On the front of the bookmark is printed the schedule of library hours:  Monday one to nine, Tuesday and Wednesday ten to nine, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday ten to five-thirty.  On the back is the following message.  I quote it in full:

"GET THE FACTS BY PHONE ...... RE 9 - 1900

Next time you need information fast, just telephone the Queens Central Library.  Professional librarians, using a collection of 500 reference books of the handbook of statistical information type, will quickly supply the answer you need.... whether it be on business statistics, spelling, politics or sports, or as technical as "How do you convert temperature from Fahrenheit to centigrade?"

This is just one more way the Queens Public Library puts its extensive reference facilities within easy reach of the entire borough of Queens.  Make a note of the number RE 9-1900."

My immediate association is to a wonderful old 1957 Katherine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy movie, Desk Set.  Hepburn runs the reference department of a large corporation, presiding over a team of whizzes who can locate any desired tidbit of information in minutes.  Tracy is the inventor of a room-sized computer [complete with punch cards] set to replace her.  Need I tell you that Hepburn defeats the machine and wins Tracy?

There were many things that were better in those days, not the least of which was a still vibrant labor union movement.  But I have to confess that I could no longer survive without Google.  I gather that in the works these days are electronic eyeglasses that will project information before my eyes as I walk through the world.  I assume it will communicate directly with my brain, thereby obviating the tedious ritual of typing questions onto a keyboard or tapping them onto a screen. 

Of course, there is the old computer problem, Garbage in, garbage out.  Probably even my futuristic eyeglasses will not come up with "Karl Marx" when I form in my mind the question, "Who is the greatest social scientist of all time."  So I suppose there is some point in my teaching that course at UNC next semester.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

GUEST POST BY TONY COUTURE

Many of you will have seen the comments on MOOCs and such things by Tony Couture.  Tony is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Prince Edward Island in Canada.  In response to my thoughts about ISIS and asymmetric warfare, he sent the following brief essay to me, which I offer here as a guest post.

                                                                    On Air Power
                                                                by Tony Couture

One of the most ominous moments of President Obama’s speech about Islamic State or ISIS on Sept. 10, 2014 was his vow to destroy them with America’s air power. Superiority in traditional air power does not necessarily translate into victory because of the new uses of social media and the ability of groups to put their messages “on air”–to make themselves visible to the world through the media despite being destroyed in person. Social media appear to be a new stage in the development or the degeneration of our species revolutionary capacities.


One narrative of the main generations of modern revolutionaries would begin with religiously-centered groups like the Puritans dissenting, and from the fight for religious freedom evolved the early radicals who invented democratic revolutions by secularizing opposition to governments
and raising the class struggle to consciousness. This first group sometimes seized power with violence and terrorized the ruling classes (guillotined them), while disciplining themselves by making revolution into a professional pursuit: it was not to be a mere coup d ètat, it must be a mass
movement of liberation from arbitrary rule.

In the early 1900`s, a second generation of modern revolutionaries in Russia applied Marxism to make the scientifically planned economy and the materialist worldview essential to another paradigm of revolutionary activity. Though the mass movement to unionize and socialist government entitlement programs remain important consequences of this generation, it has been associated with genocide and mass extermination of over 100 million people for the communist cause. The second generation continues to inspire hard-nosed, scientific revolutionaries who cannot solve every problem with government through total government.

A third generation of revolutionaries added the 1960`s counter-culture, which psychologized and sexualized revolution in order to shock the traditional culture. Lenny Bruce, Herbert Marcuse, feminists, John Lennon and artists such as Rodney Dangerfield, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and the New Left fall into this third paradigm of revolution as making peace, not war. The focus shifts here from an adversarial stance typical of war of ideas thinkers to an opting out to create your own new age instead, and a de-militarization of revolution into practices like demonstrations, people power and the sexual revolution.

In the 1990`s, new waves of computer-assisted agents of the information society arose and functioned to displace traditional revolutionary activities. The cybernization subsumes the previous processes
(sexualization, communization, democratization) and diverts them into pornography, security and consumer concerns. What makes them different are their cyber-skills and impersonal identities: internet advantages such as greater anonymity, more access to free information, more privacy, and more possible publicity than ever imaginable before. They have set new records of mass murder, learned to televise killing for greater effect and in defiance of civilization. Schooled in virtual violence and online games, killers like ISIS have tried to invent the atom bomb of social media strikes: beheading of a hostage or worse violence and then spreading the images through the
Internet. Filmed in English to cause maximum insult, this is nausea, revolting but not revolution. It is a Trojan Horse, fired through virtual spaces as an image of our ultimate undoing, to shake down a largely virtual civilization. If entertainment and social media have become our Achilles Heel, then beheading video bombs will continue. We should be humiliated now by our videos of “smart missiles” exploding enemies, and struck dumb as we are.



Saturday, September 13, 2014

CULINARY REFLECTIONS

I made a very simple dinner this evening for Susie and me.  [Yes, we eat that early, if you are taking note of when this was posted.  But then, we get up before five a.m.]  I put a yam in the oven at 425 degrees and just let it sit there for the better part of an hour.  I steamed some baby spinach.  And I pan seared a lovely piece of tune quickly over very high heat on both sides, so that it was absolutely raw inside.  The tuna was served with a dip of chopped up ginger and garlic in soy sauce.  With this I drank a moderately priced Cabernet, and Susie, as is her wont, drank Procesco.  I used no herbs or spices, no salt [of course], and certainly no butter.  The honest truth is that it was better -- tastier -- than what we can get at almost any restaurant.

The secret to delicious cooking is buying very fresh ingredients and then cooking them so that their natural flavors emerge.   The principal reason that the dinners I cook in France are better than the dinners I cook in Chapel Hill is that I can buy better ingredients in Paris -- including some, such as fresh cuissses de canard -- that are not available here.

I try to make the plate attractive when I bring it to the table, but "presentation" is not my primary concern.  Taste is.  Since Susie is insistent about wanting a green vegetable with every meal, I do my best to comply.

One of my favorite kitchen appliances is my mandolin --  a devise that allows me to slice vegetables very, very thin.  The virtue of sauteing vegetables that have been mandolined is that the thinness of the slices allows the natural sugars to emerge during the cooking process.  A single large Vidalia onion mandolined into a large pile of very thin slices will, if cooked slowly for long enough, virtually melt into a delicious mush.  Something quite similar happens to zuccini [or courgettes, as we say in France] or bok choy. 

With baroque music on the Bose radio/CD player, we have a delightful evening meal.

THE FURTHER WONDERS OF GOOGLE

A few moments ago, I idly Googled myself.  [No snarking, please].  Google helpfully named eighteen other people whom those Googling me also Googled [I do not even want to talk about the depth of detail Google seems to know about me, and about you, and about everyone else on the planet.]  The first five were Immanuel Kant, Karl Marx, Barrington Moore, Jr., John Stuart Mill, and Patrick Wolff [my chess grandmaster son.]   That strikes me as seriously cool.  I am quite happy to hang out with those guys in cyberspace.   The next thirteen are Lewis White Beck, Andrew Kliman, Walter Savitch [a hotshot computer scientist -- how come?], Herbert Marcuse, Tobias Barrington Wolff [my brilliant law professor son], Norman Kemp Smith, Allan Bloom, Jonathan Wolff [London University political philosopher, wrote a book on Marx], Joseph Raz, Gerald Cohen, Marty Peretz, John Rawls, and Leslie Green [big deal Professor of Jurisprudence at Oxford whose major book is The Authority of the Law  -- that makes sense.]

No women or persons of color, note.