29 September 2007

Test your morals!

Tests and polls are everywhere. But this one I really had to check out, after having seen it mentioned in a crazy article in The New Yorker about evolution and morality.

So, I took the test related to moral foundation. In it, you were to respond to questions such as "children should be taught the importance of authority?" and "it is always wrong to harm another human being". Disagree or agree?

How I scored? Based on the result, I am a perfect Rawlsian utilitarinist! According to the test results, I value fairness, whereas I am deeply concerned about all things having to do with "harm". In these respects, my scores didn't differ radically from other people's, liberals or conservatives, even though I received higher scores than the average. When turning to issues about "authority", "loyalty" and "purity" my scores were considerably lower than the average liberal or conservative person's. Well, based on all this, I really seem to be the perfect Utilitarian.

See you in hell!

26 September 2007

A Good Cover is Hard to Find

Most cover songs are dull. Most cover songs emulate the original, both in content and in style. Often, bands covering a song by another artist are very similar in sound in relation to that band already, so their doing a cover of one of the other band's songs is not sensational in any sense. A band influenced by The Smiths covers "There is a light that never goes out". Daredevilry!

Quite a few bands have chosen another approach towards covers. An interesting, by now classic, example is Cat Power's version of Satisfaction. The chorus is never sung. Instead of a cocky (sorry) expression of insatiable sexual desire, Cat Power plays the song in a way that conveys insecurity and world-weariness. The emphasis is on the lines: "When I'm ridin' around the globe/And I'm doin' this and I'm signin that..."

The most ingenious covers make the real meaning of the lyrics of the song visible. Some artists have the dubious skill of creating songs where almost anything, in terms of sexism etc., seems normal. Then there are covers like Mark Kozelek's. His interpretations of AC/DC songs are deceivingly deadpan. But this only strengthens the effect of bringing the content of the lyrics to the fore. By radically changing the atmosphere of the song he makes it come alive in a very strange way.

A campier example of this is Travis' cover of "Hit me baby". After hearing this version, I was really amazed how the line "hit me baby..." slips by so uncontroversially in the Spears' version. But my English skills are not perfect. Perhaps there are many connotations of "hitting".

Anyways: here are some other cover gems:

Anna Ternheim: Shoreline
Susanna & the magic orchestra: Crazy, crazy nights
Nouvelle Vauge: Too drunk to fuck
White stripes: Jolene
Xiu Xiu: Fast car
Blackeyed Susans: State trooper
Hederos & Hellberg: Pale blue eyes
Nick Cave: In the ghetto
Tori Amos: Strange fruit
Red house painters: Shock me
Midnight choir: Spiritual
Cowboy junkies: I'm so lonesome I could cry
16 horsepower: Bad moon risin'
Patricia Barber: My girl
Shannon Wright: I started a joke
Magnet: I walk the line

21 September 2007


Fun with mobile phone (named Gösta).

Other human beings

When we think about the lives of famous people, rock stars, actors or writers, it might be hard to imagine that these people do the same ordinary things that we do. They, too, eat, go to the bathroom, clean the dishes. I guess this is one of the reasons why some people find it enormously entertaining to be served intimate details about celebrities. And, admittedly, that goes for me too.

While standing in the lunch queue at work I was overhearing a conversation between one of the professors at the Uni and her professor husband. She said: "but it's humanism..." Her husband talked a while in exactly the same tone of voice as that of his wife. Couldn't make out the words. I was overwhelmed by a feeling of how distant these people seem to me. But I wasn't able to (for myself) formulate why I felt this way. They are engaged in academic work, just as I am. I've read some of the books that they've read. It could be said that we "have a lot in common". And then I tried to imagine them at home, eating cereal, arguing about who's got to do the shopping. Watching stupid TV shows. It was impossible. But why?

When meeting these types at the library, it's quite OK. I don't pay attention to it. It's normal. Bumping into them in the grocery store is an altogether different matter; it feels unbearingly awkward, independently of whether they happen to know me or not. Just watching them grab a tomato, a newspaper or glancing at them while they are choosing one brand of washing powder over another. During all this I feel extremely voyeuristic. As if confronted with something really, really intimate. But what is intimate about picking up a tomato?

What is this about? Is it that when some people are talking it feels as if they reveal nothing about themselves? I hear them talk but I never hear them. Plans are made, jokes are made, points are made. Etc. The many things we say when we talk about how a person is present in her words. It's not necessarily that these people say nothing about themselves. That I would feel less distant to them were I to become familiar with some revealing details of their lives (but sometimes that changes things). It's more the spirit in which they talk, in which they relate to the things other say.

In contrast: I feel immediately at ease with some people. And this has nothing to do with them having supplied me with details of their lives. What I am thinking about is rather a certain lack of reservation; that you can say anything and the other person will not consider you a fool; she will try to understand; she will not stop talking to you.

But now I have focused too much on the other person, as if this feeling of remoteness has no relation to me. That is not true at all. In fact, some of my best friends are people to whom I, a few years ago, felt just as distant as in the case of the Professor in the lunch queue. But suddenly, or by and by, our relation has changed.

17 September 2007

"cultural loss"?

Y and I had an interesting discussion a propos Charles Taylor's review of a recent book by Jonathan Lear: Radical hope: ethics in the face of cultural devastation (the review is published in New York Review of Books 54 (2007): 7).

Lear describes how the culture of the indian Crow tribe was transformed when their life was restricted to the reservation. Traditional life of the Crow tribe revolved around buffalo hunting and protection (by means of warfare) of hunting territories. Not only did some practices become hard to hold on to in the life of the reservation: some practices even became unintelligible. Protection of boundaries was intelligible in warfare and buffalo hunting, but some of its traditions became unintelligible when the conditions of life were changed. Taylor explains: "It is not just that you may be forbidden to try them [the relevant cultural practices] and may be severely punished for attempting to do so; but worse, you can no longer even try them."

Lear & Taylor make a good point here, I think. What we do is intelligible in a particular setting. We are doing something when a certain description of it can be applied, it might be said (this is, however, a problematic way of putting it). People can be said to "vote" only within a particular form of political culture (I allude to Peter Winch here). We can understand the radical loss of meaning in the Crow culture in comparison to what it would mean if practices we consider important were suddenly eradicated from our lives (Taylor mentions phenomena such as computers and classical music). In the case of the Crow tribe, the meaning of life, not only the meaning of a particular practice, is transformed under the new conditions. Lear quotes Robert Lowie, an anthropologist: "War was not a concern of a class nor even of the male sex, but of the whole population, from cradle to grave."

In our culture, Taylor notes, flexibility, rather than tradition, is celebrated as a virtue. This tends to make us blind to the kind of tragedy that is involved in "cultural death". A slightly more daring claim is Lear's contention that cultural loss is not to be understood as a loss from a particular point of view (i.e. from the point of view of "the parties involved"). "It is the real loss of a point of view".

Obviously, Lear is highlighting something very important when he attends to the disastrous ways in which many forms of life have been destroyed by Western (post-)colonialism & the economic doctrine of "free trade". Lear is also right in pointing out that, historically, "Westeners" seem to have understood little about the implications of such a destruction of a form of life. Or to state it more aptly: they have not wanted to understand. Or: the destruction of a cultural practice has been seen as justified (e.g. "conversion of the heathen").

But I am in disagreement with Lear & Taylor when it comes to the idea about "cultural death" as being a loss independently of all existent perspectives. Perceiving something as a loss means that we relate to it in a quite specific way; that the disappearance of a phenomenon or a practice is something that we regret. Or even: perceiving something in terms of a loss implicates that one sees what has been lost as something good. This point will have quite radical consequences for how we talk about the Crow tribe example (which was, according to Lear, dominated by "honor" and "courage"). Moral reactions, rather than theoretical claims, are what is involved in describing "cultural loss". [Cf. discussions about secularization: a loss or the victory of Reason?]

Lear's conception of radical hope is interesting. He talks about hope as something that is not necessarily limited to the possibilities that we can make sense of in a straightforward way. Even if we do not yet understand (conceptually) how something is possible, hope presents something as, claims something to be, a possibility. But, sadly, Lear attempts to justify how this kind of hope is possible and perhaps also justified. Or he seems to be saying something along those lines, but perhaps it would be worth reading the book in order to have a clearer picture of how he describes radical hope.

15 September 2007

mixing stuff

Lars Vilks, the artist who has stirred up quite a lot of things by portraying Muhammad as a dog, ends his latest statement in Dagens nyheter by saying that politics and religion have to be kept separate. A lawyer was quoted in Svenska dagbladet as saying that politicians should have no influence over how law is practiced. His comment is one of the contributions in a recent Swedish debate over changes in the legislation on sexual violence. I take it that one of his points was that politicians should not interfere with the business of interpreting laws.

To me, these two statements cannot be said to be anything but outrageously stupid. Of course, Vilks and the lawyer comment on things that are very different in nature, but what these two commentators have in common is a belief in life as consisting of quite separate areas, which have to be kept clean from influence so as not to loose their function. It seems that the idea about functionality is inherent in this picture, even if expressed in a lot of different ways.

Of course, there are some situations in which it becomes important to point out that a question concerns politics, rather than religion. A political question is often masked in religious language. And the same goes for the relation between law and politics. There are many practices, principles and laws aimed at preventing arbitrariness in (e.g) imprisonments and in trials (habeas corpus, to mention but one example, has that function, as far as I can see). In the debates over the Guantánamo camp we can see this discussion in full bloom. See this link:

But the problem is that the examples of how one question is confused for another, or how one question is disguised into unrecognizibility, need not in itself elicit ideas about politics as an area with a particular function, which necessarily stands in opposition to other areas. It is, I would say, just as easy to come up with sound examples of how polictics and religion, or law and polictics, are intertwined, as it is to mention examples of how it is vital to keep them distinct from each other.

14 September 2007


1. At the library. Going through the borrowing transaction with the librarian, whom I don't really know. She informs me that the library has decided to extend the number of times a library loan can be renewed. I grin happily, she smiles back just as happily and says that this will ease workload for everyone. Explanation: I waste half my paycheck on stupid overdue bills and even though I feel bad about it I don't get less absent-minded. - The charm of the situation consisted in the way my reaction was responded to by a mirroring reaction conveying a very mundane sort of happiness. The happiness of practicalities, of how things work out in the end.

2. Buying computers. My new acquaintance B warns me about nervy shop assistants, young men half-crazed in their attempts to appear reassured and manly. His warning is justified, of course. I stagger into the shop, packed with beasts, and when finally addressed by the shop assistant, I stammer forth my business. He mumbles something clearly with the intention of making me seem like an idiot. I was not really up for that, so I left. Well, what can I say. The tension among the men (there were no women present) in that computer store was comparable to a particular sexist representation of the 19th century lady - 'hysteria'. Fear and loathing.

3. I am told: "there is no nursing trait in you whatsoever."

9 September 2007

Pessimism & possibilities

I've gone over this in my mind a million times.
There is this person that nourishes the opinion that one should, at all times, be on one's guard for any harms that might befall one. If things are good, or just bearable, she takes care to remind you that everything might change for the worse. Look out! I have a hard time trying to figure out what to say here. It is all too easy to presuppose that pessimism enjoys the support of Reason and Good Sense. Isn't it a good thing to watch out for possible difficulties, to be prepared for whatever situation that you may be confronted with?

Thinking about something is often thought to be a quite innocent business. "Thinking about bad things is no guarantee that bad things will happen." But preparing for future disasters is, as it were, an expression of one's perception of the present situation. It means quite a lot that we see something as a possibility in relation to which we see ourselves forced to take a stand. It's not innocent at all to view something as a possibility. What is more, to talk about something as a possibility has, in order to be taken seriously, to have some connection with the way we perceive the present situation. If it does not, I would say that you are simply playing with words. Of course, it is possible that I will be hit by a car tomorrow or that my colleague will put poison in my drink or that I will not be granted another scholarship ever again. But thinking about these things as real possibilities would have quite serious implications for the ways in which I think about my life, my colleague or my work.

My point is that it does not make any sense to say that one sees it as important to talk about possibilities while at the same time reassuring one that this talk is to be understood on a purely abstract level. If you say to me that you think you will probably have a brain tumor in a few years time, then I am, naturally, worried about you. I wonder why you think about this now. I wonder whether you are afraid of having a tumor. If you say that you entertain these thoughts because it is good to prepare for any scenario, but that it doesn't really mean anything specific, then I really do have a hard time understanding you.

Proust, The Beatles & Kurt Cobain

No author has described fascination better than Proust. The young protagonist of the first parts of In remembrance of things past is characterized by his numerous obsessions. Different persons function as the objects of his interest, but they are all present in his mind in a way resembling works of art rather than real, concrete human beings. The parallel between art and adoration is also made explicit in the book in a way that conveys irony, self-consciousness and self-blindness at the same time. Ambiguity is ever-present in Proust's novel.

The protagonist's adororation oscillates between obsession and contempt. In countless passages he ruminates about the possible scenarios of meeting the adored person (Mme. Swann/Albertine/Elstir): he reflects on what his reactions will be, and he is also trying to prepare for how the other will perceive him. Preceding reflection is contrasted with the harsh reality of the encounter. The qualities bestowed on the beloved wane by and by, as adoration is transformed into disappointment and contempt. The point is of course not that his pure love aims too high, that reality cannot answer to his high expectations. The problem is, it is revealed, all about having ideals, expectations, trying to mould persons into one's own picture of reality.

"What a fascinating life!" All cheesy documentaries (books, TV, film) stem from an exploitation of fascination. And I suppose fascination in itself expresses an exploitative relation to something. The objective of these types of documentaries is to present a person's life as grand, exciting, full of unexpected twists and turns. Despite variations in tone and emphasis, they all appeal to a sense of aesthetic appreciation of life as a narrative with a plot and characters. Read any documentary about a sports hero, a rock star or a politician, and I am sure you will know what I mean. As a kid I read tons of books about the Beatles. What was it that kept me interested? A familiar story, to which new details are added. A historical background, oddities, extravaganza. The pleasure of having it all revealed, exposed.

"Last Days", Gus van Sant's film with a protagonist in many respects reminiscent of Kurt Cobain, goes against the grain of the genre of "pseudo-documentary". The movie does not gorge in spectacular debauchery, it doesn't even put forward a narrative in the traditional sense. Instead, the film invokes the mundane, the ordinary, the slow pace of everyday life. Walking, driving a car, sitting. Listening to stupid door-to-door salespersons. In a beautiful way, it resists the temptation of grabbing onto the familiar details which we suppose "are the central ones". The association of Kurt Cobain is not so important. Derek Jarman did the same thing in his film about Wittgenstein. It's a great film, placing the viewer in the Jarman universe. From what I've heard about the new film about Bob Dylan, it, too, breaks many conventions marring films about "famous people".

6 September 2007


Frontex, the EU agency based in Warsaw, was created as a specialised and independent body tasked to coordinate the operational cooperation between Member States in the field of border security. The activities of Frontex are intelligence driven. Frontex complements and provides particular added value to the national border management systems of the Member States.

This is how Frontex is presented on their homepage. It's not hard to figure out what the objective of the agency is: to keep "unwelcome guests" out of the EU. But of course they do not say this - the objectives are softened by means of euphemisms and fuzzy management talk. Added value to the national border management systems of the Member States? Border Management?

Frontex is an EU-associated agency, operating from Warsaw, whose mission it is to help the individual EU member states secure their borders. Their tasks include coordination, development of surveillance methods, risk analyses and training of guards. On the homepage the agency declares that they promote the freedom and security of EU citizens. What about the security and freedom of people outside the EU?

- It seems to me that there is something highly problematic in at least some ideas about what the EU is about, that EU is an interest club for the few lucky states invited, that the function of EU is to secure the interests of the memeber states. The rest of the world is not included in what has to be taken into consideration. The rest of the world is simply a factor that has to be managed. And for that we need Frontex.

I don't think EU is exclusively about this, but sometimes I wonder.

3 September 2007

Taguba & Abu Ghraib

I've just finished reading an article published in the on-line edition of the New Yorker: "The general's report: How Antonio Taguba, who investigated the Abu Ghraib scandal, became one of its casualties." by Seymore M. Hersh (25.06.07). Army Major Taguba led the inquiry into the abuses at Abu Ghraib. The interview with Taguba deals with many questions, but one of the things that Taguba returns to again and again throughout the interview is the way Rumsfeld and other prominent actors in the Army and the White house tried to dodge responsibility for the interrogation methods at Abu Ghraib.

Of course, what happened was described as the initiative of individual low-ranking soldiers. Rumsfeld claimed not to have been informed (he did this under oath). In the article, Taguba mentions several reasons why this seems highly improbable. “There was no way Rumsfeld didn’t know what was going on. He’s a guy who wants to know everything, and what he was giving us was hard to believe.”

Even more interesting is the fact that Taguba was ostricised - he received a phone call by the Army's Vice -Chief of staff, who told him that he was to retire. In the beginning of the article, Hersh mentions the seemingly arduous initiation of the investigations. Was this simply an attempt to appear responsible? A telling fact, however, is that the investigators were not allowed to look into the role of Rumsfeld and Pentagon - they were to focus on the low-ranking soldiers. Hersh writes, wryly: "the result was that none found any high-level intelligence involvement in the abuse." How surprising!