Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Theory of the Stork

The following is an internet joke; I didn't make it up. I got it from here, although I suspect that that poster didn't make it up either.
Two different theories exist concerning the origin of children: the theory of sexual reproduction, and the theory of the stork. Many people believe in the theory of sexual reproduction because they have been taught this theory at school.

In reality, however, many of the world's leading scientists are in favor of the theory of the stork. If the theory of sexual reproduction is taught in schools, it must only be taught as a theory and not as the truth. Alternative theories, such as the theory of the stork, must also be taught.

Evidence supporting the theory of the stork includes the following:

1. It is a scientifically established fact that the stork does exist. This can be confirmed by every ornithologist.

2. The alleged human fetal development contains several features that the theory of sexual reproduction is unable to explain.

3. The theory of sexual reproduction implies that a child is approximately nine months old at birth. This is an absurd claim. Everyone knows that a newborn child is newborn.

4. According to the theory of sexual reproduction, children are a result of sexual intercourse. There are, however, several well documented cases where sexual intercourse has not led to the birth of a child.

5. Statistical studies in the Netherlands have indicated a positive correlation between the birth rate and the number of storks. Both are decreasing.

6. The theory of the stork can be investigated by rigorous scientific methods. The only assumption involved is that children are delivered by the stork.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Stanley Cavell on Arguing About the Beautiful

From "Aesthetic Problems of Modern Philosophy", by Stanley Cavell, in Must We Mean What We Say? (Cambridge, 1969), pp. 88-89:
Kant goes on immediately to distinguish two kinds of "aesthetical judgments," or, as he calls them, judgments of taste; and here, unfortunately, his influence trickled out. The first kind he class the taste of sense, the second the taste of reflection; the former concerns merely what we find pleasant, the latter must -- logically must, some of us would say -- concern and claim more than that. And it is only the second whose topic is the beautiful, whose role, that is, would be aesthetic in its more familiar sense. The something more these judgments must do is to "demand" or "impute" or "claim" general validity, universal agreement with them; and when we make such judgments we go on claiming this agreement even though we know from experience that they will not receive it. (Are we, then, just willful or stupid in going on making them?) Kant also describes our feeling or belief when we make such judgments -- judgments in which we demand "the assent of everyone," although we cannot "postulate" this assent as we could in making an ordinary empirical judgment -- as one of "[speaking] with a universal voice." That is the sort of thing that we are likely nowadays to call a piece of psychology, which is no doubt right enough. But we would take that to mean that it marks an accidental accompaniment of such judgments; whereas Kant says about this claim to universal validity, this voice, that it "so essentially belongs to a judgment by which we describe anything as beautiful that, if this were not thought in it, it would never come into our thoughts to use the expression at all, but everything which pleases without a concept would be counted as pleasant." ... Kant seems to be saying that apart from a certain spirit in which we make judgments we could have no concepts of the sort of thing we think of as aesthetic.
Ibid., pp. 91-92:

...let us adapt Kant's examples to a form which is more fashionable, and think of the sort of reasons we offer for such judgments:

A: Canary wine is pleasant.
B: How can you say that? It tastes like canary droppings.
A: Well, I like it.
A: He plays beautifully doesn't he?
B: Yes; too beautifully. Beethoven is not Chopin.

Or he may answer:

B2: How can you say that? There was no line, no structure, no idea what the music was about. he's simply an impressive colorist.

Now, how will A reply? Can he now say: "Well, I liked it?". Of course he can; but don't we feel that here that would be a feeble rejoinder, a retreat to personal taste? Because B's reasons are obviously relevant to the valuation of performance, and because they are arguable, in ways that anyone who knows about such things will know how to pursue. A doesn't have to pursue them; but if he doesn't, there's a price he will have to pay in our estimate of him. Is that enough to show it is a different kind of judgment? We are still in the realm of the psychological. But I wish to say that the price is necessary, and specific to the sorts of judgments we call aesthetic.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Accommodating Other's Tastes, or, Arguin' with Eddie

Eddie Campbell and I have had some back-and-forths about comics and their definitions of late, first in comments at my blog, and then later (part one) at his (two). (Short version: he thinks that "comic books" are best understood as a genre; I think that "comics" are best understood as a medium. (The difference in the nouns matters, I think, since it signifies something about our disagreement.) If you want to know why I think I'm right, well, follow the links.)

The most recent round is here. But in this case I found myself making general points that were fairly far removed from our past discussions... so I thought I'd repost them here. The opening quote in italics is a quote from Campbell's comments on his own blog (I've made it a bit longer than in his comments section, just for contest). The only other context you need is that Campbell's post was a response to an excerpt from Douglas Wolk's forthcoming book, Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean.


Okay, this struck me as an odd question:

"And I wouldn't want to spoil aybody's pleasure. If i raised a question it was 'How far can we expect the person in the street to accomodate one's fannishness?" (I'm presuming the book aspires to an audience outside the fan market, given the Salon promo, the non-comics publisher, the taking pains to explain terms that the fan would surely take for granted..."

Aside from the obvious stuff that I presume I don't need to defend here (e.g. not censoring stuff), in what way should any person in the street accommodate any interest, enthusiasm, aesthetic taste or anything remotely like that? What would it even mean?

The only answer I can think of is this: we can expect (well, in the normative not empirical sense of the word) intellectual honesty -- not to pass judgment on material one's unfamiliar with, for instance.

Thus, if the person in the street dismisses Wolk's book on the grounds that comics aren't any good or worth paying attention to, the chances are high that it's an intellectually dishonest judgment. If the person has read all (or, generously, a majority) of the works that Wolk discusses, and then makes that judgment, then, fine. Others may disagree. (I don't agree with the old maxim de gustibus non est disputandum (one can't argue about taste) -- as Kant points out, we ourselves don't quite agree with it, since we make judgments about taste in a form that has applicability to others, not just ourselves -- but clearly these are matters about which consensus is unlikely to form).

This is not to say that a person, in the street or anywhere else, has an obligation to be interested in Wolk's book or the material it contains. We all perforce make uninformed judgments about what's worth our time. But it's important (again, for reasons of intellectual honesty) not to confuse those with judgments that are more firmly grounded, i.e. our opinions about books we've read, art we've seen, genres we've read widely in, etc. (That last too is, of course, contested: how widely? is not a question everyone will agree on in every case.)

Thus I personally would never say of Tomb of Dracula that "only a 'fan' could possibly think that's worth talking about" [also a Campbell quote - ed.] because I haven't read it. Nothing has particularly made me want to -- I've seen no positive reviews from people whose tastes I trust, for instance. (Maybe if and when I read Mr. Wolk's book that will change; maybe not.) But saying that I'm suspicious enough of its quality (based on various external factors) not to want to spend my money or time on it is necessarily a provisional judgment; and not a judgment that seems extendable to say that something's not worth talking about, full stop. For that you have to have read it. (Certainly I don't think that the word "Dracula" is sufficient to dismiss it; anyone who thinks that... probably shares few enough beliefs with me to make the point not worth arguing.)

Of course, I'm an academic, by temperament as well as profession, so that I tend to think that practically everything is worth talking about. But if one substitutes "worth reading" (and obviously not everything is worth reading), the same judgment applies. Yes, it's a paradox: the only person who can justifiably say that something is not worth reading is one who's read it. But what alternative would you suggest?

How far should a person go to accommodate any interest? Only as far as they're interested. But don't confuse one's lack of interest with an aesthetic judgment of any intellectual standing.

Of course some people have been immersed in a cultural arena and then decided that it's not worthwhile -- it seems that our esteemed host Mr. Campbell is in that category with what he calls (misleadingly in my view, but never mind) the "genre" of comics. That's a judgment that is at least based on sufficient evidence. But, as I said, in matters of taste we're unlikely to reach consensus.

I have the sneaking suspicion the implication here is that in other areas a person on the street is obliged to accommodate people's interests -- in, presumably, art that some other person thinks is worthwhile. Well, I simply find such arguments weak at best. It's one thing to say "here is a thing that will give you great pleasure and delight, you should try it": that's very reasonable. It's simply another thing to say "you ought to respect this": the usual claim by any representative of high culture, usually met with the scorn it deserves. I like a lot of things from high culture, and a lot of things from popular culture (and dislike plenty of things in both): but I don't think that the former has any greater a priori claim on other people's respect.

Update: Eddie Campbell replied to this comment, and I replied again, in comments at his blog; I think I won't repost those here, since they're too tied up with the overall arc of our ongoing debate. But go there and read them if you're inclined.

Recommended Reading, Viewing & Other Verbing

Scott Horton on why you should be worried about a US war on Iran. This would not only be grossly immoral (which it would), but would also be possibly the stupidest thing the US has ever done; but if you think that'll stop Dick Cheney, you don't know Dick. So worry.

• "The way we live now": with banana republic institutions: brought to you by the Conservative Movement. (What's sad is that that link is almost random: I could probably have picked any of dozens of examples from the last week or two...)

• Lots of scientists, atheists and assorted scoffers have been going to the Creation Museum and letting us know what they think of it, with various flavors of hilarity and scorn. My favorite tour has been this flickr set, which gives you enough that you really feel like you've been to the museum. (So if you don't want to do that, don't click through.) If you want more, PZ Myers has your links. (I think we're still waiting on Scalzi...)

• The whole nine yards", a phrase whose etymology is the source of much dispute, has gotten its earliest-citation-to-date -- 1964. If that sentence interests you, so will the link.

Benoît Peeters's "Four Concepts of the Page" is a fascinating and worthwhile comics analysis (it's a translated section from his book ); anyone who likes my 100 Great Pages Series (which I will get back to, really!) should take a look at this.

Geoff Klock, blogger and author of How to Read Superhero Comics and Why, just finished a series of blog posts doing an issue-by-issue analysis of Grant Morrison's run on New X-Men. (He has a summary of his findings here.) Probably only of interest to those who've read the Morrison run, but highly recommended for anyone who has.

Update: Johann Hari's report from the National Review cruse (via) is fascinating, in a multiple-car-crash-pile-up sort of way. Highly recommended for fans of horror films and monster movies, or people who aren't sufficiently worried about the U.S.'s upcoming aggressive war against Iran from the top link in this post.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Changing My Name: A Tale with an Announcement In Lieu of a Moral

Note: Though I tell it in a lazily meandering fashion, as is my wont, there is actually a personal announcement at the end of this tale. While I generally would blame no one for skipping any particular post of mine, I would ask that any readers who know me in personal life to at least skim the end and catch the announcement.

For a long time I intended to change my name when I got married.

This was true from long before I met the woman I would go on to marry. What I intended to change it to was -- generically -- Stephen Othername Frug, where "othername" would be the last name of my spouse. I imagined that my spouse might change her name to either "Othername Frug" or "Frug Othername", whichever she preferred.

I had gotten the idea, I think, from John Lennon -- who never liked his original middle name, Winston, and eventually changed his name to "John Ono Lennon". I think that, legally, he simply added "Ono" rather than replacing Winston (apparently it is, or was, easier to legally add than legally drop a name), so that his name ended up "John Winston Ono Lennon". He was, as I recall from reading a biography of J.O.L. some time ago, unhappy about this, asking his lawyer something to the effect of "What am I paying you all this money for if I'm not getting rid of the 'Winston'?" And, in almost every case, he dropped the Winston, and simply called himself "John Ono Lennon".

I never got straight what Yoko's name was -- Yoko Ono Lennon, or Yoko Lennon Ono, or just still plain old Yoko Ono. I think it was Yoko Ono Lennon (and Wikipedia confirms it), but of course most people still called her Yoko Ono, or just Yoko.

I should explain that it wasn't that I so idealized Lennon that I wanted to copy whatever he did simply because he did it. I did (and do) admire Lennon a great deal -- but not that much. I simply thought it was a good idea, and -- rather unconsciously, I think -- I began to assume that I would do it.

As part of this, I began a fairly conscious policy of not using my given middle name ("Ellison", which was also my father's middle name -- given to him so as to name him after his maternal grandfather, Eli Simon). Nor would I use the initial. I simply went by "Stephen Frug" whenever a full name was called for. (Its not like my name was something common like Robert Wilson or something.) I was fairly consistent about it. My one backsliding was on my college diploma. I have a strong memory of telling the Senior Tutor of my House (who was in charge of these things) that the name I wanted on my diploma was just "Stephen Frug" -- nothing else. And he -- gently, kindly, with (I have not the slightest doubt) my best interests at heart -- badgered me about it, talking about how I might regret it, until, in a moment of weakness, I agreed to use my middle initial on it as well. And the truth is that I regretted it right away, and have done so ever since (whenever I thought of it, which, of course, was not often -- usually when I'm at my father's house and I happen to see it, up on the wall of my childhood room). Years later, when I got another diploma, I made sure not to use the middle initial; and that I've never regretted a second.

But by that time, I had actually married, which gets around to the fact that my intended name change had never happened.

I'm not quite sure why it didn't. But I think that there are two main reasons.

The first is that I overstretched, and that the lesser idea got lost in the shuffle.

You see, I got the idea that I'd change my name to Sara (my then-fiancé)'s name.* My thought was that I would, for my personal life, be Stephen Saperstein, and in my published work -- I wanted then (as I want now, and have always wanted) to write fiction -- retain my "maiden" name. Of course that wasn't the traditional thing to do. But that was part of its appeal. I didn't particularly think of myself as a feminist, not because I didn't agree with feminist goals (I do, very much) but because, first, of the ongoing debate about whether a man can be a feminist at all, and second, because "feminist" is, to my mind, something one earns, rather than something one claims -- and I had done nothing worthy of meriting the appellation, much as I admired those who had. But, still, I thought it would be a good feminist move, and I liked it for that reason.

Well, Sara wanted (for various reasons of her own) to change her name. So we went round and round on it for at least a few months. What finally ended it for me is that someone very, very close to me -- not Sara -- got extremely upset when I finally broached the idea. This, plus Sara's ongoing campaign on the other side, settled the issue. And somewhere in the shuffle, the lesser idea got first downgraded, and finally abandoned.

But all that isn't quite right, actually, since what really clinched the issue was the second big reason, which was the sexist structure of the Massachusetts wedding license. (As it was then. I wonder if -- particularly in light of more recent events -- it's been changed since.) Because I believe I still had every intention of changing my middle name until I saw that rotten form.

The form had a place for "bride's name before marriage", a place for "bride's name after marriage", and a place for "groom's name" -- and that's all. To legally change her name, all Sara had to do was fill in the second of those categories. (Oh, she had to go and get a new driver's license and all that; it was more of a pain than that. But that was implementing the change; doing it was part of the marriage license.) Whereas I had no way -- at all -- to use the form to do the same thing.

Well, we gripped about the rank sexism of it -- which was, it should go without saying, outrageous. But I -- and it would have had to be me -- didn't do anything about it. Sara changed her name to Sara Saperstein Frug; I didn't change mine at all.

And that's where the issue lay, until shortly a number of months ago, when Sara and I had a long conversation about life, the universe and everything -- including our marriage, then nearing its tenth-anniversary mark.

And it occurred to me, out of nowhere, that it wasn't too late.

We talked it over, and Sara seemed to like the idea. Also, I liked the idea. It was something I had long intended to do -- something I had wanted to do. Sure, it was now almost ten years later. But so what? Surely better late then never?**

So... I'm gonna do it.

Now, I'm not sure if I'm going to go change all my legal documents. My understanding is that, as long as there is no intent of deception, one can call oneself whatever one wants. So I can use the name without going through a legal process. Maybe I'll want to change it, legally and formally, in the end. But I'm going to take it one step at a time.

I also don't know if I'm going to always use three names, the way that some people do -- particularly, it seems, wonderful writers (Kim Stanley Robinson, Jorge Luis Borges), politicians (FDR, JFK, LBJ, MLK) and assassins of politicians (John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, James Earl Ray). I've been signing internet comments "Stephen Frug" for some time now, and I'm not sure if I'm going to change that. Or maybe I will, and the idea just takes getting used to.

But for formal purposes, I do intend to use it. I have not yet published any fiction -- if I were a religious man, I might call it heshkaka pretis that I failed to do so until this decision -- but I still hope, plan and work toward doing so. And if -- deus volent, when -- I do, I will use my (new) full name. I am also working on a new degree, a Ph.D.; the diploma, when (insh'allah) I get it, will use it too.

And I will use it on this weblog. If you look at the top, you will see that I have put my name -- my new, full name -- up there.

Stephen Saperstein Frug.

It will take some getting used to -- for me, for my family and friends. But then, how often have women changed their names, and had to get used to it? And I'm not even changing my last name -- just my middle name.

It seems little enough.

Sara's and my lives have been entwined for significantly more than a decade now (the more than two years we were dating, the more than a year we were engaged, and the nearly ten-and-a-half years of our marriage). I hope and trust -- imertza hashem -- that it will be as long as we both shall live. I like very much the idea of marking this in my name.

As I have said, I don't know how far I will take this. But I do know a minimum: in any setting where I use three names (that does not raise the possibility of legal fraud), I will use my new full name.

In the old days, I believe, people used to announce such things by sending around announcement cards. But this is the age of the internet; and I hope that anyone who has read this far will consider this the equivalent.

-- Stephen Saperstein Frug ( Stephen Frug)
June, 2007

* If there is a good editorial solution to this particular usage -- inserting a clause between a noun and its possessive -- I don't know what it is. But there really ought to be, since it is a perfectly reasonable sounding thing to do in spoken language.

** Yes, there was a reason that I waited between the conversation and doing it now: it's a long story, and private, and frankly not all that interesting. Maybe I'll tell you some other time.

Friday, June 22, 2007

The 2013 Armory Show Recreation: Somebody Should Start Planning This Now

...Menard's fragmentary Quixote is more subtle than Cervantes'...

-- Jorge Luis Borges
Sometimes you get ideas that you are in no position to implement: and so you start passing the idea around, hoping that someone better suited will pick it up and run with it. This is one of those.

The 1913 Armory Show (officially the "International Exhibition of Modern Art") was a major exhibition of European modern artists in the U.S. -- frequently (although no doubt simplistically) described as the event that introduced modern art to America. This site has a lot of information about the Armory Show, including a partial digital reconstruction of the show; a contemporary photograph of the exhibit hall is here. It was a striking and important cultural event. There is a good basic introduction to the event in this article, which describes the show as follows:
The exhibit challenged and changed both the academic and public definition and attitude toward art, and by doing so altered the course of history for American artists. Marking the end of one era and the beginning of another, The Armory Show shattered the provincial calm of American art... The Armory Show has consistently been regarded as a moment of cultural crisis and a radical break with tradition, out of which emerged a new and vital art, literature and drama. Noted art historian William H. Gerdts has referred to it as ‘epochal’.

So what about recreating it for the centennial in 2013?

Note that I am not talking about putting on a new show of modern (or contemporary or current or whatever word you want to choose that hasn't been co-opted by a now-past cultural moment). That sort of thing happens all the time, in numerous venues -- in fact, there is a current Armory Show which does that, annually if their web site is anything to go by. Lots of different people put on shows of hot new artistic happenings: my guess is they're frequent enough to become, by themselves, old hat.

No, what I am suggesting is a literal recreation of the 1913 Armory Show for the 2013 centennial: get all the same works of art (or as many as possible: all would be the goal, although possibly not attainable) and reproduce the show. Let people of 2013 see what rocked the world of 1913.

Partly this would be fun in and of itself -- a chance to see a seemingly long-past art show, like going to see a Shakespeare play in the recreated Globe Theater. But mostly it would be an interesting lesson in cultural shift. For undoubtedly the works -- singly and together -- would mean very different things to us today. Would they still seem as powerful? Would they seem dated? Would they remind us of possibilities forgotten?

Like Pierre Menard's Don Quixote, the same "text" in a new cultural context would mean something radically different in a new context. Seeing it in this new way would teach us about art (the art of the now-century old modern, the art of our time, art in general); it would teach us about the past, and about ourselves.

It's not only that we know it would be a great show (since it was before); it's also that it would be a great show in both expected and unexpected ways. From its multiplicity of readings, I think it would have far more to say about contemporary art than any contemporary contemporary art show could. -- At the very least, it would make a great counterpoint to them.

So what about it? Is there a visionary curator in the house?

Wednesday, June 20, 2007


A few years ago a very old family friend (a law professor, as most of my family's very old family friends are) asked me to name one (political) blog she should read. I hemmed and hawed, and talked about how this was like asking for one thing written in this new-fangled form, "magazines" (to adapt a line from Slacktivist); but then I said Digby's blog Hullabaloo was the one to read.

Because, while Atrios is the go-to guy for daily links, if you're only going to read one blog analyst, Digby's the one to read. (For that matter, Atrios has a regular feature called "What Digby Said" -- which has spread far & wide in the reality-based blogosphere.)

True then;* and despite the extraordinary breadth and quality of the competition, probably true today. Digby sees through the lies, sees what needs doing... and writes it up in elegant but fiery prose.

In the grand tradition of James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, Digby wrote pseudonymously. No one knew who Digby was...

Until tonight.

Coaxed out of pseudonymity by the newly-blogging Rick Pearlstein, now you can go listen to Digby speak in her own voice, live on video. (via) Update: Transcript here.

Long may she blog!

Open thread on Digby's own Hullabaloo is here.

Update: Speech follow-ups: Garance Franke-Ruta tells us Digby's real name and does a little googling; Glenn Greenwald picks up what Digby said in her speech and runs with it; Isaiah Poole interviews Digby here.

* Admittedly, Billmon's Whiskey Bar (now, alas, permanently closed) was on hiatus at the time or it might have been a tougher call.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Recommended Reading: Random & Recent Edition

Brad DeLong proposes a heirarchy of honest conservatives; then his commentator John Emerson dissents. (Via Andrew Sullivan, Honest Conservative Class of 2004)

Martha Nussbaum argues against academic boycotts (in general, but in the context of Israel). (For my take on the issue, see here.)

Megan Stack on the horrors of life in a patriarchal theocracy (which just happens to be our country's BFF. Great.)

Tony Karon -- a South African-born Jew -- makes the case for the apartheid label for Israel in a powerful essay.

• Today's Boing-Boing-Did-You-Click-Through?™ Link: SF writer Charlie Stross on the near impossibility of space colonization (not, as the BoingBoing post mistakenly puts it, space exploration, about which Stross says "Exploring our own solar system is a no-brainer: we can do it, we are doing it...", although he does think that even exploring interstellar distances is probably futile too, as well as colonization of any sort). A must for SF fans and geeks of all descriptions.

• A cartoonist's tribulations: in an ongoing saga at Tom Hart's Hutch Blog, Matt Madden is devising a series of increasingly complex constraints for Tom Hart to use in a week of his daily strip Hutch Owen. (Constraints such as: write it backwards, use 20 panels, only words/fx& not images; etc.) Fun reading for anyone interested in the Ou-x-po aesthetic or cartooning. The best way to read it is probably to begin at the beginning and click through, rather than in usual backwards-blog style. (Update: the five finished strips, with summaries of the various constraints, can be viewed here in their final form.)

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Forecast: Light Posting

I've had three high-volume months here at Attempts, so I wanted to let everyone know that posting might be lighter in the coming weeks. I'm feeling a lot of pressure on other fronts, so I think I have to try and back off the blogging a bit. (We'll see how I do... better bloggers than I have tried & failed at this.)

In particular, I'm not abandoning my 100 Great Pages series only 12% finished; I intend to keep going on with it. But you'll note I never gave myself a deadline. And those posts take a lot of time, attention and effort, and their frequency might drop from once a week to, say, once a month, or even less. I'll do 'em if and when I have time and energy to spare.

In short: I may be around less frequently. But I ain't going away permanently. I'll be in and out -- just a bit less often.

(There's an RSS feed in the sidebar if that's easier for folks to use to keep up with an irregularly posting blog.)

Note: Post moved to the top since it remains relevant.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Friday, June 01, 2007

Kevin Drum Puts Our Actions Into Clear Words

Quoth Drum: "[T]he Bush administration has, for the past four years in Iraq, been busily building permanent military bases the size of small towns to go along with an embassy compound more suited to be NATO headquarters than a diplomatic outpost to a country of 25 million... An occupying force that's planning to leave someday doesn't need the kind of infrastructure we're building in Iraq. Only a country planning to use Iraq as a staging area for further conquest needs that."