30 August 2007

Old folks

I am reading the autobiography of feminist writer bell hooks, Bone Black, Memories of Girlhood. It's a poetic book, consisting of fragments, scenes, in which images of a poor, black Southern community is conjured up. All in all, the storytelling is haunting. She writes about poverty and racism. About what it is like to feel different, fighting with expectations about womanhood and "being black". All this she does in a very unpretentious, down-to-earth way.

Her friendships with older people is a recurring theme in the book. She describes how she could be herself in their presence, but at the same time she felt that her older friends were different from the grown-ups, stuck in the midst of the buzz of life. The pretense and tensions of the world of the grown-up is described as being absent in her relationships with elderly people. She even says that for her grandfather, being old means that one finally can stop pretending, stop "making an effort to be somebody". It's not that her friends have settled down for a quiet ending. What she depicts is instead a sense of joy and curiosity, time to be with her.

I have no difficulties understanding her. My relationship with both of my grandmothers were like that, in a way. Different as they were in temperament, both were persons with whom I felt at ease, reassured that they would never grow tired of talking, playing, having me around. And if they suddenly tired of my endless questioning, they would put an end to it in a firm, but friendly, way.

I don't think hooks has a thesis about life as consisting of a period, 'adulthood', necessarily constituted by pretense and social bullshit. Instead, she talks about how her old friends were given quite a lot of freedom, in both a positive and a negative way. People let them lead their lives pretty much as they wanted, but, sadly, that was because they were considered too old to change, "eccentric old folks". Old age were, for them, at least to some extent, a relief from social pressure (but as I said there are some ambiguities here).

It is quite easy to recognize this quite mixed attitude towards old people. But this nonwithstanding, I guess what is tough in becoming old is adjusting to a life where one often is very dependent on other people. On the other hand: we experience helping and receiving help in many different ways, as help can be given and received in different spirits.

28 August 2007

"Indie hits"?

Pitchfork is one of the most prominent places on the Internet dedicated to indie music - news, concert- and record reviews. On August 22, Pitchfork delivered a very sour and perplexed review of a record called "This is next". "This is next" consists of tunes by the biggest-selling indie artists (Bright eyes, Of Montreal, Spoon). "Indie hits"? Isn't that a contradiction in terms? Who is conceived to be the audience of this type of thing? It can't be the fans of the artists on the album: they already know these songs, and probably own the album or have downloaded the songs. The reviewer's, LeMay's, suggestion is that Warner-owned distributor Alternative Distributor Allience is trying to sell indie artists to a mass audience, supposedly buying the album at a Wal-Mart type of non-specialty retailer.

The question is: if the distributors of alternative music will attempt to transform indie music into products that are sold to mass audiences, how will this change the conditions of distributing indie music? Will distributors exclusively concentrate their resources on the artists they think have a potential of Wal-Mart success? LeMay comments: "Historically speaking, bad things tend to happen when major labels seek to impose their own promotional strategies on their independent partners." I think there is a lot of truth in this.

LeMay reassures the reader that he doesn't want to keep his obscure indie favorite bands to himself - and the rest of the indie élite. The issue is not about that. It's good that decent bands reach an audience. But, as he says, the idea behind "This is next" "is far more condescending" than the elitist indie rocker's scorn for the "masses".

26 August 2007

Entrepreneurship - better start early!

While having a drink at one of my favourite bars, a friend told me a story that really shocked me. She had been talking to a colleauge of hers, who is a parent of a child. Nowadays, the colleague told my friend, kids are expected to create a portfolio twice a year - in kindergarten! I imagine that the "portfolio" is a collection of everything that the kid has produced during 6 months; drawings etc. I don't know whether this was my friend's interpretation, or if it was what the colleague said, but the thought here would be that by creating a portfolio the kids would be taught the virtue of consistency - that it is important to finish what one has started.

The kids are also, the colleague reported, asked to make self-evaluations. In these, the kids are evaluating how they are progressing, how their general attitude is, what contacts they have with other kindergarten kids etc. As I remember the story, the colleague's kid was five.

Now, to me, this sounds like a horrible attempt to prepare kids for a future of entrepreneurship. Already in kindergarten, they are informed about the value of viewing oneself as a creator of "projects". Every activity - be it drawing, building things - is not important or fun in itself - it is worth while doing as a means for something else. The idea seems to be that the activities that kids are generally engaged in should be a preparation for the reality of the labor market: one should possess many different skills, be ready to critically evaluate one's project. And even more importantly: one should reserve one's energy for valuable things only. Valuable, that is, from the perspective of "entrepreneurship".

In some ways, this whole idea seems absurdly confused. Of course, a kid learns, by and by, to see herself in relation to others: she learns what is considered important by others (I do not mean this in a stimulus-response way, but rather in an existential sense), and she learns what it means that one is understood in a particular way. But it seems outrageously stupid to think that childen could be taught self-knowledge systematically. I don't think it is a good idea that kids, from childhood onwards, should pursue a project of "creating an identity". I mean: how does one perceive life if almost anything one does could, and should, be collected in a "portfolio"?

Another dimension of this story is, of course, political. The kindergarten in the story seems to have some sort of agenda as to how they, in the best way possible, can influence the kids and prepare them for what is most vital in life: business.

Must I say I am "somewhat critical" of an idea that kids should be moulded into entrepreneurs already by the age of five?

21 August 2007

bored attention

When unfocused and bored, the surrounding world comes to life in the strangest way. Every sound is unbearingly present. A thud of a pen. A jarring door. Somebody talks in an adjacent room. You cannot make out what they say, it's just noisy mumbling. Somebody drinks coffee and the sound of the mug being placed at the table is like an earthquake. Hearing somebody walk down the corridor, clattering heels.

How exhausting that sometimes is. You focus on everything - anything - but yet you are focused on nothing. Feeling as if the surrounding swallows you, the whole of you. Everything seems to be aimed at you in a conspiracy-like way. Even if the mumblings are not for your ears, they turn against you. "This is my space, who are you?" They bother you, they intrude on you, offend you. Nothing is signficant but everything swirls around, asking for your dreary attention. Trying to resist all this: "I should get on with my business". But "business" provides more of the same: meaningless noise and mumbling.

Then something happens, and it's all over.

19 August 2007

Independent cinemas

In Finland, the market for cinemas is being monopolized. One big company, Finnkino, owns most of the cinemas. Finnkino provides us with blockbusters and Finnish films. In general, what is offered is 10 blockbusters, replaced by new ones every fourth month or so. In my beloved town, Turku, there is one independent cinema. Now the prospects look bad, as the owner of the estate has given them notice of termination of the tenancy agreement. It'll be interesting to see how this will be resolved. Will there be municipal funding for this? There should be. A more general point is that commercial market conditions should not be applied here - or at least some of these conditions do more harm than good. (And, interestingly, these conditions are not even taken seriously "in business": state authorities who handle issues related to competition have tended to turn a blind eye to Finnkino's ways of doing business)
The lack of debate worries me. Does nobody care? At least my life would be considerably impoverished if I would not have access to a decent cinema.

16 August 2007

"Davidson might have avoided my criticism by changing these aspects of his theory" - a rant on philosophy

I am reading Bratman's criticism of Donald Davidson's theory of intentions. (Davidson is one of the biggest names within the tradition of philosophy of action) Bratman is criticizing Davidson for having given a picture of future intentions that will lead to some unacceptable results and paradoxes. But instead of grappling with the things we say about intentions and planning, Bratman tends to focus on a philosophical theory that somehow is to cover all aspects of "the phenomenon of" intentions. Davidson's theory is not satisfactory to Bratman, who tries to review the parts of it that needs to be revised for it to be a sound account of actions, planning and intentions.

Is this a problem about reductio ad absurdum arguments? In short, these are: "a type of logical argument where one assumes a claim for the sake of argument, derives an absurd or ridiculous outcome, and then concludes that the original assumption must have been wrong as it led to an absurd result." (Wikipedia) No, I guess not. As I see it, it is often important to ask questions such as: "do you really mean this, if what it in the end will come to mean is that?" If reductio arguments are simply about that, then I suppose they are quite essential in our conversations about what we mean when we say things that sound good but are quite problematic when one takes a closer look. (I don't to want to go into the use of reductio in formal logic, as I don't know much about that)

No, the problem is that "philosophical theories" sometimes, quite often, lead the life of a vampire: they are dependent on life - sucking the blood of the living, while being themselves dead. What I mean by this scary analogy is: of course there is something in what Bratman says that has to do with our life and the way we think and talk about life. Bratman talks, for example, about how we plan and coordinate things (even if his descriptions are quite strange and bloodless). The examples he mentions are seemlingly ordinary - buying books, eating yogurt - but the only place they have in his text is to shed light on some quite formal mistake of Davidson: Davidson's view of how beliefs, desires and actions are related to each other will allow for some paradoxical and unacceptable results: for example that he cannot give a decent description of how we choose between two alternatives of which none of them is better or worse than the other.

Well, of course we might have real, non-philosophical problems choosing between alternatives that we have a hard time comparing. But rather than trying to come up with a philosophical theory that will encompass "this type of scenario" we should look into, for example, what it means to see something "as an alternative", "as something I can see as a possibility". To be more concrete: there is something fishy about a project of creating an "all-embracing theory" that contains no paradoxes or contradictions, and does not involve any obvious clashes with "how we normally speak". How would this type of theory help us understand anything? Or is it aimed at understanding something? If not - what function is it supposed to have?

Bratman writes of his own suggestion: "The theory avoids my problems at the cost of others." Okay, that's interesting. - I would be a thousand times more sympathetic to Bratman's essay if it would somehow set out to, in light of these "paradoxes" of Davidson's theory, analyze in what way Davidson has got things the wrong way. For example: what is wrong with Davidson's descriptions of "intentionality" and "future intentions"?
As it is now, Bratman appears as a mechanic trying to "fix" the small inconveniences of Davidson's theory.

More of the same

I was discussing this thing with "boy/girl" questions with Y. One thing she said at least set me straight: I don't think that it says anything at all about a person's idea of gender that she/he asks this type of question. It is something that we are expected to ask, we take it as an innocent question. But I still think it does reveal something about the kind of world we live in that the question is seen as intelligible and that it is seen as innocent. For this reason, I think it was a wonderful thing when E, in her "announcement-SMS", stated that it, the kid, "wasn't a unicorn" - and no more than that.

Continuing on the same topic, one might reflect on why it to some people seems to be such an outrageous thought that names (of human beings) could be gender-neutral.

15 August 2007

"One is not born a woman...."

Two of my closest friends became parents today. I don't have many friends who have kids, so this will be interesting. I don't know much about kids, nor about the institutions surrounding birth. Do people say 'congratulation!'? That I am asking this type of question is, of course, a hint of my own confused perspective (as to the subject matter of kids and giving birth to them, in general). But of course I am glad for them and it perhaps doesn't matter what exact words one comes up with.

An interesting thing is that when I announced the news to other people, their first question was, in many cases: "a boy or a girl?" I don't know, perhaps I read too much into this question. But it gives me the creeps. As if "boy or girl" was a primary, decisive question, as if it has to do somehow with a form of life. As if this kid already, newly born, embodies a form of life. I don't like that.

Because of course this has nothing to do with genitalia - the question would be unintelligible were it not for the different things "boy" and "girl" mean (in this rotten world). But in this case, it is very unclear what meaning "girl" and "boy" is given - in other words: why this piece of information seems so interesting (In a way, of course, it is clear that "males" and "females", given the present world, will be confronted with problems and situations that sometimes differ in kinds - but I have no idea what to do with this perspective - do you?).

And now: "one is not born a woman, but becomes one". - Well, given your 'body' (this is problematic), are you destined to become a woman or a man? What a saddening perspective! Do I know how to reject the question? Did I say something intelligent? No, damn sure I didn't (My mind is as slow as my heart).

I shouldn't be thinking about these things, but I am. Bah. Sometimes I am prone to think that it is so unfair that we live in this world, and not another one.

14 August 2007

Books, reading and readers

As a kid, there was this book I read over and over again: Walk through cold fire by Cin Forshay-Lunsford. (A perfect book for someone who wanted to perceive oneself as an Outsider) My friend was as big a fan of the book as I was, so we took turns borrowing it from our small, local library. To my knowledge, Forshay-Lunsford never published another book (she was very young when Walk... was published in the mid-eighties). It would be interesting to know what happened to her; if she quit writing, if she took up another career etc. Google, who usually knows everything about everything, provides links to bookshops and forums, but nothing else.

This type of question is asked in Mark Moskowitz' documentary Stone Reader (2002). Moskowitz describes himself as an avid reader, a lover of books. In the early seventies he read a book that was praised in the New York Book Review - Stones of Summer by Daw Mossman. Searching the Internet, trying to learn more about the author, who never published another book, he didn't find out much. But, still being fascinated by the fate of Mossman, he tracks down the people surrounding the process of publishing and reviewing the book. In the documentary, publishing agents, reviewers, librarians and others are interviewed. In the end of the film, he visits Mossman and as it turns out, after the book was published, Mossman worked as a welder for a while, then he took care of his dying mother - etc.

Some of the reactions in the IMDB reviews question the seemingly loose idea of the film. I didn't have any problems with that. On the opposite: I found it to be a quite ingenious attempt to describe how much reading often means in our lives. And it also related this question to matters pertaining to publishing, editing and reviewing books. And some of the scenes were quite fabulous; at one point in the film, just before meeting up with Mossman, Moskowitz was phoning his mother up, nervously asking for her advice what he was to say to Mossman. In a tone conveying both irritation and amusement, his mother begged him "not to bother him too much".

This particular moment somehow shows how we are often enthusiastic about something, excited to meet somebody, but we have just a dim idea as to why we want this - it is not good for anything.

In addition to this, it was good to see that the film didn't make any statements about "the edifying nature of literature". Instead, the pleasure of reading was focused on.

10 August 2007

Homemade hillbilly jam

When I'm not reading Davidson, I am watching films about hillbillies. (But there is, I hope, no special intention involved in that...)

The other day I was entirely enchanted by the documentary Homemade Hillbilly Jam (2005/ Minnich), a film evolving around three families in the Ozark Mountains of Southernwest Missouri. Just like another recent documentary about rural life in the US, Searching for the Wrong-eyed Jesus (2005/ White), it focuses on music; talking about what music means, playing music. But neither of the films are about music exclusively; in both films, we see people going about their daily chores and routines and in both films, religion is a prominent theme, but often in a quite off-beat, non-spectacular way.

In Homemade Hillbilly Jam, members of three families talk about their relation to music and the role of music in family life. Long scenes are dedicated to family jam sessions. You might think that this sounds boring, but surprisingly, it was not. It was quite refreshing to see how a deep relation between the family members is expressed in the way music is played, in the way band members interact (and also, in the commonplace activities that are displayed).

An important topic in the film was tradition - a rural life style beginning to disappear. The film portrays different ways of perceiving change. Some of the musicians have created a "hillbilly music" package where the "preservation of a life style" comes out as a mix of kitsch, fun and sentimentality (to be honest, I didn't quite understand how I was to take it). Mark Bilyeu, one of the film's main characters, who seemed to relate to music in a very sympathetic and loving way, said on one occasion that he felt that much in his surrounding was not worth holding on to, but that some things were. He believed that fewer and fewer people were familiar with traditional music, and, by making music, he wanted to make a contribution to a tradition.

There is something in this way of emphasizing tradition (traditional ways, traditional life) that I don't feel comfortable with. Of course, it's no mystery that people enjoy making music and find certain types of music expressing something special. But in seeing what one is doing as a part of a project of "preserving a tradition" then, it seems to me, one is focusing on something quite different than the specific activity - e.g. of making music - that one on the other hand often says that one sees as important (what I am saying is that it is unclear what somebody sees as important when they talk about the importance of holding on to a traditional life style).

Perhaps I am am simply too single-mindedly addressing three equally negative images:
(1) 'let's do it as we've always done it' said, for instance, on Christmas eve, planning a family-reunion for the next day when it is apparent that this particular arrangement is thought to make for an occasion where 'everyone is at least satisfied' (from this perspective, it seems out of the question that people would actually enjoy themselves, lacking interest in 'arrangements').
(2) Walking around in art museums and watching tourists who are drearily uninterested in what they are seeing, but who constantly feel the urge to discuss what they see in terms of art history (think about Casaboun in George Eliot's novel Middlemarch).
(3) Idealization of past times - in Finland, if you want to start a career as a writer, you should write about "how people endured life in the old days" (and be sure to throw in something about some of the past wars, and, in addition to this, be sure to describe everything in terms of poverty and misery). 'How society nowadays is so....' 'How we have lost something essential....' - Well, you are probably talking about values - more shallow and self-centered now, in comparison with... (It amazes me how anybody can be said to care about values.)

And perhaps it is a particular way of combining a fondness for tradition with a particular emphasis on 'life styles' that makes me uncomfortable. I didn't think that this was a very common perspective in the documentary itself, even if it popped up every once in a while. On the other hand, it was moving to see how some of the younger characters in the film really appreciated the music that the older family members were dedicated to, and how they were playing together, sharing the love for music and each other. To me, this has nothing to do with 'preservation of a tradition'.

7 August 2007

A woman under the influence

I have been told that A woman under the influence (1974 / Cassavetes) is a film that casts some light on many aspects of gendered oppression. After eventually having watched the film, I agree with this.

It is not, however, an easy film to watch. At many occasions, I felt like changing channels or pressing the stop-button. I tried to reflect on why I was overwhelmed by this reaction. Not only was it a very realistic movie, but the tension conveyed by the interaction between the actors was almost unbearable to endure. The atmosphere was intense in a way unlike anything else I have seen (Cassavetes' film is loud and quiet at the same time). All this is connected with what I saw as a very successful approach to storytelling; a lot of things were - in a way - kept open. Open not so that everything was reduced to guessing or hints, but open in the way that situations were often displayed in a complicated, rich manner.

As you probably know, the film focuses on a family, and especially on the relationship between the housewife-mother-wife and her blue-collar husband. By and by, we are made more familiar with how these two people perceive each other. This is, mainly, what the film is about. How we are perceived by others and what it means to be seen as a particular kind of person. Of course, in some way it deals with questions about mental illnesses - but it also relates these questions to gendered power. We get to see how the woman protagonist's reactions are constantly experienced by the other characters in the film as "embarrassing" or just an expression of mental deviance. I don't think that the movie actually would tempt one to ask whether she was really ill. What I rather tended to direct my attention at was the way the film described situations reaching a deadlock, in which everything turns from bad to worse (but I don't think that the film made any general claim about things being unchangeable).

Many aspects of the film reminded me of a film that is just as gruesome as A Woman Under the influence, namely: Alexandra's project (2003/ de Heer). These are both important films and I must say that I have learned a lot from both of them.

6 August 2007


At a wedding party I attended a few days ago, a man I didn't recognize (but who probably knows my parents) asked me 'what I am doing these days'. As I had been confronted with this question quite a few times before the same night, and as this question doesn't usually ignite a very interesting (or even any) discussion, I responded in a quite tired and bored tone that I am a student of Philosophy. Ignoring the tone of my voice, he started talking about why he couldn't see himself doing philosophy. He said that he imagines that philosophy requires quite a bit of patience, and he also told me he didn't really have much patience for "those types of questions". I agree with him that patience is important in doing philosophy, and I think, for me, this is what is most difficult in studying philosophy. (Usually, when people hear what it is that I am studying, they tell me that philosophical questions are too difficult for them. I was quite intrigued when it became clear that this person didn't at least mean this)

Of course, many jobs involve patience, many tasks require some form of persistence (I don't know whether that is the proper concept here). A computer consultant tries to find a solution to a specific problem - of course, her job requires that she does not give up easily - that she should try to consider as many possibilities as possible before she says that the problem cannot be fixed or that something "cannot be done". Quite a few years ago I had a summer job in a firm that provided washing services. I experienced my job as very boring and mind-numbing and all my strengths were engaged in simply being there, doing the job I was paid for - going through the same movements over and over again. Ths was a type of job where I constantly felt I could be doing something else, something more meaningful, but that I had no other choice than to try to focus and try to live through the day (time has never been as concrete as it was then).

But why would I say that in doing philosophy, patience is important? One aspect of the matter is surely psychological - managing to focus one's attention, not to let one's thoughts drift away. But I guess that is not very interesting (even though I suppose that was what the man at the wedding party was probably talking about) and I guess that this is true of many activities. Another aspect is of course that some philosophical texts are densely (not to say badly) written and that it is often very hard to understand what it is that people are writing about, why they are expressing something in a specific way, etc. At some point, I might feel like throwing the book away, exclaiming that this writer seems to have nothing to say to me, that all there is is an empty, intellectual excercise. Perhaps that is fully justified in some cases - but often it is not. For example, I find reading Heidegger rewarding, and once one becomes more familiar with the text, it is clear that it is not technical in the way many other - most - other philosophical texts are.

But even more important than that (philosophers whose foremost virtue is intellectual rigor are not the ones I would say I have learned the most from) philosophy requires that you think openly about questions - and this, of course, confronts you with how you yourself tends to think about things - I mean: philosophy confronts you with yourself. Here it is of course easy to shy away from the personal dimension of a question, transforming it into a completely technical, formal matter. I don't mean that philosophy is all about some form of "self-exploration" in some fuzzy, general sense (if at all). What I am talking about is something that I find to be the biggest danger in my own work: that I often loose a sense of why a question is a real, important one as I notice that it has started to become a technical matter, it has become evident that the question is no longer mine. This dimension of philosophy takes of course different shapes, depending on what subject matter one is occupied by (and in moral philosophy it is of course often a pressing issue). But also in general, I think something fishy is going one when philosophers are defending certain "positions" in particular "philosophical debates" - it appears then as if the discussion has lost everything that would otherwise make it a substantial exchange between people who are prepared to talk to each other about how they understand a particular issue - and why it is that somebody else would see it differently.

(I hope this didn't sound as if I were to list a number of "personal qualities" that are needed in doing philosophy - I was reflecting on what one may see as difficult or easy when being engaged in a philosophical discussion)

4 August 2007

immigration, efficiency and value creation

I heard a story about an economist and political activist from a former Soviet republic who fled to Finland after having received threats from the police and after having her bank account blocked. Today she is working as a cleaner. It is difficult for her to be granted citizenship, as this requires language skills - how could a person acquire them while working more-than-full-time in that type of job? (I think she had three different cleaning jobs) - As I understood from the story, citizenship also presupposes some form of administrative acceptance from one's 'original country' (I don't know what that means in practice, but it seems quite troublesome if the reason why one has fled the country is the political authorities in that country).

A completely different perspective is conveyed on the homepage for the Finnish Directorate of Immigration. In a news article where the year of 2006 is summed up it is pointed out that one important project for the directorate has been to "evaluate the efficiency and value creation in Finnish immigration administration". I don't know - 'efficiency' can of course be understood in several ways (efficiency in relation to what? one wants to ask), and perhaps there can be something positive in seeing efficiency as something important if that for instance means that this process of self evaluation (the administrations were to perform to self evaluations) could lead to a higher awareness of what it is that leads to the painstakingly long and unsure waiting periods for decisions about residence permits).

But at the end of the article it becomes evident that efficiency means something different from this: there are to be redundancies in the personnel and they now have to think of more efficient methods.

And value creation? What has that got to do with anything? Why is value creation seen as something that the immigrant administration should try to achieve? I am at a loss of how to understand this.

2 August 2007

Politics of sex: Football viewers in Iran

In Iran, female viewers have not been allowed to attend football games if the players are male. In 2006, Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ordered the ban to end. Interestingly, his motives for this was "chastity" and "morality" - obviously, the idea behind this being that women will behave differently in the sports arena than men - supposedly, they will not curse, nor fight etc..

The president's initiative was not welcomed by the religious leaders, however, who claimed female attendants at football games being against Islamic law (!). http://edition.cnn.com/2006/WORLD/meast/05/01/iran.football/index.html

I don't know what really happened after that, but it would be interesting to know. The latest football news from Iran is that, recently, a women's (this label has it's own tragic history) football game between Iran and Germany was mysteriously cancelled.

I was inspired to look up these facts after watching the film Offside (2006) yesterday. In the beginning of the story, female football fans trying to get into the arena are caught by security guards. The film portrays their conversations among themselves and with the security guards. It focuses on the women's anger and the ambivalence of the security guards. We get to see how the latter TRY to take their task - to protect women from "the cursing male football fans" - seriously, but it is evident that they, too, find the entire situation ridiculous and unjustified. In a particularly funny scene, one of the football fans presses one of the guard for an answer to why they are not allowed into the arena. The guard does his best in trying to come up with a convincing answer and, most importantly, an answer that would simply make his interlocutor stop asking all these troubling questions.

The film succeeded in being political in a very off-beat, unpretentious way and it managed to focus on the different characters' varying reactions toward the situation. All in all, it was a very funny movie.