29 December 2007

philosophical brawls

Philosophers are generally, it seems, bellicose people. In an amusing article in The Guardian, we learn more about a feud between professor Ted Honderich and professor Colin McGinn. McGinn has produced what the Guardian journalist calls "the most negative book review ever written". It was written on one of Honderich's books (On Consciousness). From the review: "It is a pity that his own efforts here are so shoddy, inept, and disastrous (to use a term he is fond of applying to the views of others)." And: "Honderich's understanding of positions he criticizes is often weak to nonexistent, though not lacking in chutzpah. And the view he ends up defending is preposterous in the extreme and easily refuted."

Well, imagine yourself in Honderich's shoes! Honderich defended himself thus: "It is a cold, calculated attempt to murder a philosopher's reputation". Over the telephone, McGinn told the journalist: "It's not like you're hitting someone over the head with a hammer. Ted is not very good at philosophy. That's the problem."

Which philosophical question fuelled the brawl (even though we might have reason to believe there are some personal vendettas going on)? Honderich has presented a position he calls externalism regarding the nature of 'consciousness'.Of the little I've read about Honderich's position, it appears that he defends a form of post-davidsonian epiphenomenalism, to which is added an appendage of 'subjectivity' (Go Here if you are interested). Epiphenomenalism is the idea that the mental is a mere shadow of the physical, the mental being in some sense dependent on the physical without being able to influence it. (But 'epiphenomenalism' is, to my knowledge, something philosophers are criticized for, rather than a position somebody would take up. - But what do I know.) McGinn, for his part, promulgates a theory according to which there are philosophical problems which are inherently "beyond human understanding". To me, this sounds very Nagel-ish. None of these positions seems very interesting.

Here is one example of Honderich's brilliant defence of his position: "And in any case, how dare McGinn rubbish my position. Twelve leading philosophers contributed to a book about my theory [in a special issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies last August] and not one of them was as abusive as he was."

The journalist reminds us of other similarly bellicose philosophers. Wittgenstein got a bit excited in a debate with Karl Popper, who was threatened with a poker. Or so the legend goes. I haven't yet read the book dedicated to Wittgenstein's poker.

Perhaps I haven't gained enough experience about the world of philosophers yet, but brawls like this one I have not encountered - yet. Hostilities due to differences in philosophical traditions are, however, quite frequent occurences. There are also conflicts arising in a situation where a particular philosopher is considered to be a poser, to lack interest in serious interest.

"W as in Wittgenstein"

I tried to read Deleuze - once. I gave up when it dawned on me that I didn't understand a word of the book. It was, in several senses of the word, Greek to me. He is actually the philosopher I have found the most difficult. In comparison to him, types like Husserl, Kant and Derrida belong to the Sidney Sheldon league (I haven't read Hegel - yet). Maybe I'll be more patient with reading Deleuze later. I stumbled upon one of Deleuze's comments on Wittgenstein in a transcription of a series of TV-interviews with him from 1989. Deleuze was challenged to comment on an assortment of concepts, "from a to z", among them 'opera', 'question' and 'desire'. His rejection of Wittgenstein is very amusing:

"W as in Wittgenstein"

Parnet [the journalist] says, let's move on to W, and Deleuze says, there's nothing in W, and Parnet says, yes, there's Wittgenstein. She knows he's nothing for Deleuze, but it's only a word. Deleuze says, he doesn't like to talk about that... It's a philosophical catastrophe. It's the very type of a "school", a regression of all philosophy, a massive regression. Deleuze considers the Wittgenstein matter to be quite sad. They imposed a system of terror in which, under the pretext of doing something new, it's poverty introduced as grandeur. Deleuze says there isn't a word to express this kind of danger, but that this danger is one that recurs, that it's not the first time that it has arrived. It's serious especially since he considers the Wittgensteinians to be nasty and destructive . So in this, there could be an assassination of philosophy, Deleuze says, they are assassins of philosophy, and because of that, one must remain very vigilant.

Wittgenstein - a catastrophe, an assassin of philosophy! Well, look who's talking...

(You can read the transcriptions here and if you know French (I don't, because I am George W Bush :( ) then go here - it's fun to see Deleuze's facial expression changing from depression to disgust and amusement as he is attacking the wittgensteinians. And his dry laugh, don't miss it!)

28 December 2007

Joshua Key: The story of an ordinary soldier

Buying a Christmas gift to my father is usually an ordeal. He prefers biographies, mostly about war and "great men". This year, I was lucky when strolling around in the local, crappy book shop - I bought The Deserter's tale: The story of an ordinary soldier who walked away from the war in Iraq by Joshua Key. My father read it and now I have read it, too. The book teels the story of a poor kid from Oklahoma who joins the army in order to solve his financial problems, is taken in by the recruiters' lies (he thinks he will not have to go abroad to fight) and is sent to Iraq. Being exposed to the cruelty against civilians shown by American soldiers in Iraq, he loses all his faith in the war being a mission to restore democracy and peace. Even though some parts of the book are seemingly the product of an attempt to create an alluring story (the story of a man from childhood onwards), it was a good book to read for someone who, like me, don't know much about the present reality in Iraq. Of course, I come across reports from Iraq in the news, but the soldier's point of view is rarely present there. In that way, Key's book is important.

He talks about the frustration of hunting down invisible terrorists. As a matter of fact, he never sees any 'terrorist'. The frustration of the soldiers is taken out on civilians, whom the soldiers are taught to perceive as 'the enemy', 'terrorists'. This part of the book, when he reports about horrible acts of cruelty, is very convincing. Towards the end of the book the tone is altered; he now draws general conclusions from his own experiences in Iraq. He reflects on the meagre excuses of 'I was only acting in accordance with orders'. Of course he is right that this is an excuse that will not convince anyone, but the way he says it, it comes out in a fairly preachy way that I consider entirely unnecessary in relation to what he has already said about the atrocities in Iraq. We have, as it were, already got the point. And his appeal to the Geneva convention left me a bit confused. On the one hand, he says that what they did was possible only when conscience was suffocated. On the other hand, he appeals to the Geneva book in the last part of the book almost if that would shed light on the graveness of the crimes committed by the soldies. (The Geneva convention has a function, who would want to dispute that, but I was unclear about the role it had in Key's book)

That said, Key's book should be taken seriously.

I am curious about the reception of the book in the US. Have any representatives of the US army commented on the book? Is Key's story explained away asan exception to the "humanistic mission" of the US army, in the same way as the Abu Ghraib scandal was said to be the result of the misbehaviour on the part of a few soldiers?

26 December 2007

Die Grosse Stille

I know I have a very limited knowledge of catholic religiosity. The way I tend to think about "catholicism" is, I suppose, influenced by many preconceptions and stupid attempts at generalization. (One of my colleagues once said, provokingly, that Catholicism is mere "gewgaws", showy ornaments) Reading The Diary of a Country Priest (1936) by George Bernanos did help to expand my horizons a lot. It is a good book, even though it is not easy (by its being "difficult" I simply mean that it deals with difficult things, such as belief and doubt, the difficulty of honest prayer). I suspect that my reading of the book was shallow to some extent, but I think I will return to it in a few years time in order to see how I will read the book then.

Yesterday I watched a documentary about a monastery (of the Carthusian order) in the French Alps. The Grosse Stille (2005) by Philip Gröning. One of the great things about this film was its lenght. If the way of life of the monks is to be vividly described, it is essential that we gain a perspective on time as experienced by the monks. Monastery time. The daily routines: prayer, meals and work. Reading. The monks were allowed to speak only once a week and due to this fact the film was, naturally, a quiet affair. But I don't want to make a big deal out of this fact ( - see the post on musical quietism). But as there were little dialogue, all other small sounds were conspicious in a way that at least I am not very used to. Creaks, coughs. A saw. Even a chain saw. The film induces in the viewer a hightened awareness of small things, sounds, views. In some scenes, the camera focused on the faces of the monks, who stared quietly into the camera. These were beautiful scenes.

As a reviewer on IMDB also noted, there are some odd moments in the film which are, I think, all-important. The humorous procession of cows in the monastery hallway. A monk playing keyboard. A bottle of Evian. A strange mentioning at the end of the film of a monk who is leaving for Seoul. A man feeding cats and confronting unexpected difficulties with doing that (was one cat missing?). Monks playing in the snow. These scenes add a twist to the scenes portraying serenity and quiet routines. That this type of material was included in the film shows a particular openness from the point of view of Gröning to what life in a monastery is like. At least to me, the film did not strike me as his private indulgence in his own ideas about monasteries and religiosity but rather, the film showed that the director was prepared to let himself be surprised by the different dimensions of a religious life, the different things we may see as 'a religious life' (work as religiously significant, for example).

The only problem I did have with the film was the pictures filmed in some kind of 'hyper-real' slowmotion style. These short scenes brought in an aestheticism of a kind that striked a discordant note with the matter-of-fact tone that dominated most parts of the film.

25 December 2007

The Goncourt brothers

A few months ago, there was an article in the New York Review of Books about the journals of the infamous Goncourt brothers, a couple of writers who were associating with famous authors of 19th century France. In the journals, which were (partly?) published during their lifetime, celebrities were slandared with an armoury of nasty stories. The Goncourt brothers themselves were a pair of mischieveous writers, whose talent was mainly dedicated to miscrediting the talent of other contemporary writers. According to Proust's narrator: "Goncourt knew how to listen, just as he knew how to see." The impression I have from having read about the journals, it seems as if they have a lot with common with Proust and the style of Proust. This is one reason why I am so eager to find the book, which I have not read yet myself. Parts from the journal were recently published by New York review of books classics. Here is one article from the Guardian about the Goncourt journal:

Here are the Goncourt's comment on the takeover of Napoleon III:

In swept our cousin Blamount... full of asthma and peevishness.
"By God," he panted; "It's done!"
"What? What's done?"
"The coup d'etat!"
"The Devil you say! And they're bringing out our novel today!"

Another excerpt from the journals:

no date 1856—These past day a vague melancholy, discouragement, indolence, lethargy of mind and body. Feeling more than ever this despondency of my return [from Italy], which is like some great disappointment. We come back to find out life stagnating just where it was... I am bored by the few monotonous and repeatedly scrutinized ideas that trot back and forth through my head.And other people to whom I looked forward in the expectancy of entertainment, bore me as much as myself....Nothing has happened to them either; they have simply gone on existing... No one has even died amongst the people I know I am not actually unhappy: it is something worse than that.

April 24, 1858—Between the chocolate soufflé and the chartreuse Maria loosened her corsets and began the story of her life.

24 December 2007

Morals according to my uncle B

My uncle B is a man who has a very outspoken conception about right and wrong, the good and the wicked. Here are two examples, quoted from tonight's sojourn:

(1) [The discussion for the moment concerned village J and its inhabitants. B stated that there are only 10 people who live there at a regular basis. His wife ventured to dispute this fact, upon which followed an attempt to enumerate all inabitants living in J:]
"There's the A:s, that's two people, the B:s are four, and the C:s are two..."
"Yes and don't forget the D:s!"
"And of course there's Judas Iskariot."
"He's that son-of-a-bitch who called the police when F was driving while drunk."
"That's a bad thing?"

(My uncle wistfully, only half-jokingly, whispered to my father, when they had been talking about the two or three village drunks who "escape from the world" into a state of drunken frenzy: "why can't we be like them?")

(One interesting thing about my uncle is that he, despite being explicitly anti-religious, expresses his views in a language that is often religious in kind.)

(2) A popular Swedish singer, Tore Skogman, recently passed away . Skogman was not, however, an artist appreciated by my uncle, who initiated one more tirade:
"His lyrics are witty, yes, but his singing is terrible. He has covered many songs that I like, that I listened to in my youth. Why can't he leave those songs alone? Singing those songs badly should be a case of death penalty."

23 December 2007

A Mystery (the idea of history)

In what way do past events matter to us? What is the difference between the past tense and the present tense? Are there any characteristics of our thinking about the past? How can we know things about historical events? How are we to describe the reality of the past? I will embark on an attempt to answer these questions in the form of a short illustration:
The fact that S was seen driving his "finer car" intrigues the villagers in the same way as a disconserting murder mystery. S usually drives a pickup truck. This divergence from the usual course of events is clearly something for which an explanation is required. We were all eager to know. More and more facts were brought to the surface in the conversation we were engaged in tonight, the main subject of which obviously was the occurences that have occupied our minds of late. In analogy with a most delicate detective story, it is not clear from the outset which pieces of evidence will resolve a mystery of this dignity. For this reason, the task is all the more demanding.

During this specific sitting (my mother had made an effort, offering a wide assortment of cakes to our free-spoken guest who apologized for intruding on our Christmas peace), we got to learn several new things about life, history and the nature of humankind in general. But everything that was uttered this evening was directed at the question of real importance: Why was S driving his finer car, and not the pickup truck? What is the story that explains this highly remarklable occurence?

I learned the intricate connection between pike fishing and Martin Luther (it's a village secret). We were also informed about the latest news about the village drunks, the village fools and the village entrepreneurs. Unsurprisingly, we came to ruminate about the future for us all. A few stories about past times were thrown in. Mostly, these reminiscences were intended to elucidate interesting and amusing aspects of child-rearing. Despite these good-humoured digressions, the stories our elders told us were all very educational. The future of agriculture was analyzed and local building projects were critically reviewed.
Above all, tonight family chronicles were re-enacted (even Collingwood would have had no complaints about the rigour of our thinking-again-the-thoughts-of-the-past). Having done all this, we found ourselves at peace with the present state of affairs, especially because we were no longer kept in uncertainty regarding the unusual behaviour on the part of our neighbor S. As the reason for his actions was clarified, we were now in a position to make judgements about his character. The verdict was: S is a man of many virtues. He has, on several occasions, lend his fancy car to neighbours in need. His wife, M, was rewarded equal praise for her support of the common good of the village.

22 December 2007

Milgram re-visited

You are probably familiar with the Milgram experiment. In the experiment, participants (unaware of the nature of the experiment) were instructed to administer electric shocks to individuals (sitting in an adjoining room) even though the victims of the shocks were clearly in pain. The strength of the shocks were gradually increased (up to 450 volts), but many of the participants were still willing to go on with their task. The experiment has been interpreted to show that, confronted with an order by a person who, in some sense, is a symbol of authority, we will do things that would, in another situation, appear impossible for us to do. Many interpreters of the experiment have done much of the fact that the participants were relieved of all responsibility for their actions - the experimenters tried to convince them of that.

The Observer reports that a new version of the Milgram experiment has been conducted. Interestingly, it is the legitimacy of conducting this type of experiment that is focused on in the short article. (The original experiment was criticized for its unethical treatment of the participants of the experiment) Nothing is really said about why the researcher, Jerry Burger, is interested in reviewing the result of a new Milgram-type experiment. Is it his hypothesis that people are now less fooled by the authority of white coats and uniforms? That we are less prone to blind obedience? Burger claims, however: "Among other things, we found that today people obey the experimenter in this situation at about the same rate they did 45 years ago." Here's the link from The Observer.

Here is a comment on the original experiment by The Situationist's (a blog dedicated to social psychology), discussing the role of the situation vs. dispositions in connection with the Milgram example:

"The reason the experiment is famous is not because situation trumped disposition for some subjects while disposition trumped situation for others, but because seemingly trivial situational forces to inflict great pain on an innocent person overcame the obvious situational forces to do otherwise. It had been presumed by virtually everyone, including Milgram himself, that the latter situational forces would trump the former. But that presumption was wrong for the majority of subjects—and that prediction error makes clearhow easily situational forces can lead “good people” to behave more or less like “bad apples.”"

I don't know what to do with the idea that we must either say that people have an inherent disposition to act in a specific way ("an inherent tendency for sociopathic behaviour"), or that there are some "situational forces" at hand, determining our behaviour in some direction or other. The way I see it, such a dichotomy would rid our world of meaning, leaving room for mystical forces of situations and "dispositions" only. In his 3-part article on situational forces of evil (on the same blog), Philip Zimbardo writes:

"Motives and needs that ordinarily serve us well can lead us astray when they are aroused, amplified, or manipulated by situational forces that we fail to recognize as potent. This is why evil is so pervasive. Its temptation is just a small turn away, a slight detour on the path of life, a blur in our sideview mirror, leading to disaster."

Zimbardo is right that there are a thousand ways in which the language of authority and power is used to induce obedience. Abu Ghraib: how military ranks are turned into justifications. But I don't agree with him that evil is avoided simply by our thinking about what happens to us. Sure, sometimes self-deception is dissolved when we come to think more clearly about something. But usually, self-deception and the kind of obedience Milgram is interested in goes deeper than that.

20 December 2007

Our daily bread

Unser täglich Brot by Austrian filmmaker Nikolaus Geyrhalter is one of the toughest and most difficult documentaries I've seen. It's a relentless and merciless presentation of the industrialization of food production. This film forces you to think for yourelf by throwing you into the quiet, noisy, uncanny room of your own thoughts and feelings. Does this sound like manipulation to you? I thought the film was the opposite of being manipulative because it really left the thinking, the hard work, the digestion, to the viewer.

The span of the documentary is large: through a quiet, witnessing camera, we are presented with pictures of industrial aspects of agriculture as well as gruesome images from the meat industry. At least upon first viewing (for various reasons, I think I will have to watch this several times) my reaction was that the shift between pictures of agriculture and the meat industry was very enlightning, as such a shift made me think about what "industrialization" means in different contexts and that my reactions to something being "industrial" were also very different in kind. Watching agriculture machines at work made me reflect on efficiency and the different political and historical aspects of that (in what way the development of agriculture has had an effect upon political matters on a global scale). Some things about the industrialization of agriculture are obviously harmful in a multitude of ways. The use of pesticides, for example. The harmfulness of large-scale European agriculture in relation to the economy and life of third world countries cannot be denied. Regrettably I know very little about these things and I feel terribly naive when it comes to these issues.

But, as a contrast, it was not harmfulness I was thinking of when I watched the scenes from the meat industry. Industrialization, here, means something else. Of course, in some sense we might have a different grasp of "tomatoes" and "corn" in comparison to how people would talk about "tomatoes" 100 years ago. But animals having become a commodity is a different sort of change, it seems to me. I know it is problematic to refer to how people perceived and related to animals "in other times". An innocent past is easily imagined, and I don't want to go there. But still I don't know how to make this point about animals-as-commodities, even if we leave the historical views aside, - I am confused. Perhaps it would be best to start looking at what we are willing to do to other beings. The being of "beings" is put in brackets due to the indstrial stance towards animals. And I don't intend "being" in an abstract sense here.

What does this "in brackets" mean? I think it the documentary was doing a good job in focusing on the worker's point of view. What does it mean, for the animal factory worker, to cut off parts of pig carcasses on an assembly line? To go through those movements as a part of a routine? Somehow, it is all too easy to consider "routine" as entailing a loss of meaning. Even if that is often true (by doing something a hundred times, it may turn into something that I simply do, unthinking) it is absolutely nothing that says that my eyes will not be opened to the character of what I do while I am performing the same routine for the 100:th time. Furthermore, "routines" are not always unreflected - or at least many things depend on what we mean when something is said to be "unreflected".

Is it intelligible that the meat industry worker goes through her routines in the same spirit that she would cut of plastic parts from a toy? These questions were buzzing in my head throughout the documentary. Even if the filmmaker didn't conduct any interviews, nor were there any scenes in which the workers talked about their job, the film still directed my attention at what it is like to live with a specific kind of job and a specific kind of work task. Many scenes focused on the agriculture / meat industry workers during breaks. Sipping coffee, eating a sandwitch, staring out in the blue, talking to one another (the talk was, however, transmitted to the viewer as a quiet buzz). To my delight, no polemic point was made about the worker's munching on a sandwitch while, in the next scene, killing a cow.

Is "taking a break" different for the agriculture worker, than it is for the meat industry worker? I mean: it seems quite different to take a break from picking tomatoes in relation to what it means to take a break from cleaning a factory floor from blood and guts. What do people talk about with their comrades? Are they making jokes about the dead animals? Are they talking about work at all, or is it a subject matter that is avoided as much as possible?

Are these empirical/psychological questions? Perhaps they could be, but when I watched the film, I got the feeling there are other dimensions as well. What one becomes of performing a particular form of work. The various things it means to be "bored", to "endure", to say things like "I hate my job".

The virtue of Geyrhalter's documentary is that it in no way glosses over the hard questions. There are no voiceover, no narrative (but there are certainly a sensibility as to the combination of scenes) and there are no soothing music. We do hear the roaring machines and the screaming animals.

Of course it is no news by now that consumers are usually alienated from the food that they buy and eat. But that it is no "news" hardly makes it less interesting, less worthy of reflection. At least for me, these are questions that are difficult on a day-to-day basis. The focus on the workers in this film also feels fresh. (In the same way as Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man was a fresh take on sentimentalization of, and alienation from, animals.)

19 December 2007

Official apology to whom it may concern

If I have said anything offensive about the Boss on this blog, or elsewhere, then I humbly ask my dear reader to forgive me. After all, it's Christmas soon.

The philosopher friend?

Me and some colleagues had a lunch discussion about philosophers and their personal difficulties. After a while it dawned on me that when reflecting on the gossippier part of the history of philosophy, the stories about philosophers, there are clear indications that philosophers, especially the prominent ones, are not nice people.

Socrates seems to have been the rudest person around in ancient times. He had a snappy way with people and he indulged in endless monologues. The socratic dialogues are not usually very "dialogic".

The category of rude philosophers also includes Wittgenstein. In his Wittgenstein biography, Ray Monk describes him as a stern, troubled, vain, ascetic and rude man. He is, however, also said to have had a good sense of humour. Think about the following story: Russell informs Wittgenstein that he plans to initiate an institute for peace. Wittgeinstein frowns at the idea. Russell said: Well, I'm sure you would prefer an institute dedicated to war and slavery? Wittgenstein: I would prefer that by far! Based on the things I've read by and about Wittgenstein, I think his friends were a little afraid of him, even if he seems to have been very dedicated to them, very dedicated to any discussion he was involved in.

According to one philosopher, Wittgenstein was a good philosopher exactly because he "was an asshole". (And, indeed, this will maybe seem like a natural thing to say according to a specific version of wittgensteinian methodology.)

Then there is the rest of the ascetic bunch: Spinoza and Simone Weil, for example. (But it would have been great to talk to Weil, I assume) I suppose hanging out with Kierkegaard was not always a blast, either. And can you consider yourself having a jolly drinking moment with Hobbes or Sartre? Or Aristotle? The latter would, I'm afraid, bore you to death with commonsense blabbery.

I suppose Hume or Betrand Russell were perfectly amiable people. "Nice", but not fun or exciting. The same, I believe, goes for people like Donald Davidson.

Kant is an exciting case. Some may consider his writings slightly dull. I don't quite share this opinion myself: his texts contain subtle jokes and intelligent, even deep, passages. Kant seems to have been a complex, rich personality. If we go beyond the fact that he never left Königsberg, he was, according to my information ( = O.L's Kant course), a party lion who had a very deep and loving relation with his servant Lampe. (Some say that Kant stated the immortality of the soul as a postulate in order to console dear Lampe)

It would also be fun to hang out with Nietzsche, despite the fact that his view on friendship was not so pleasant.

And what about Leibniz? For some reason, I am convinced he must have been one hell of a entertaining friend. But who knows.

15 December 2007

x 365

Recently, I bumped into The x 365 project. People write about memories of persons they've met at some point of their life. Sounds dull? Being a dedicated Proustian, but also as a fan of Raymond Carver, I take a particular liking in that kind of thing. The texts are based on a set number of words. I suppose it is partly the shortness that contributes to the poetic tone of the descriptions.

Reading the text evokes memories of people I have met long ago, but whom I have not thought about for ages. One of the pleasant things about reading Proust is his representations of hazy buzz of people-talk. He mentions thousands of names. He brings up small episodes, connections, stories, rumours, fantasies. In that respect, his book has some resemblancies with what it is like to read the Bible from the Old Testament onwards - it is hard to remember all the people mentioned. Interestingly, forgetting some of the things he mentions in passing seems to form a part of the story itself, at least it is a vital part of the relation between the book and it's reader. When a character he has mentioned in some earlier part of the book suddenly reappears, this time all-important, it is a peculiarity of Proust's style that a change of this type is described from the point of view of memory, of forgetting and trying to remember.

My parents, and the rest of the older generation in the village, are Proustians, too. A conversation sets off by somebody delivering a nice piece of gossip concerning a particular person. If the others are not immediately familiar with the person in question, they initiate a pursuit of serious and in depth social- and genealogical research. It's like this:

"I met L on the ferry. She told me about her cousin R who has got sick recently."
"Sick? Wha' about him?"
"Well, M didn't know for sure, but he said it was cancer. I bumped into him yesterday, and he knew about what is going on with him."
"M talks a lot, you know, it's hard to know about him."
"Who is L? Is she married to G? I met G the other day at the supermarket (I had to pick up some bread, that's why I went there, otherwise I would....) and, where was I...., yes! G and I went to school together...."
"Did you??? I thought she was older. She certainly looks old. By the way, I heard she is ill, too. I think it was N who told..."
"Oh yes, but don't you know R, L:s cousin?"
"The one who is ill?"
"Yes, I'm sure you have met him. He used to work at [Company X] but then he switched jobs and now he works at Viking Line. Got himself a permanent job an' all!"
"Is that so? Yes, I heard that [Company X] is having problems right now."
(M, who hasn't said anything yet, interjects with a considerable amount of self-importance:)
"In fact I know the boss of [Company X]. It's not as bad as it seems. Or at least that is what he says. He has plans about moving some of the business - to Russia."
"Russia? Oh-oh."
"Well, my goodness."
"Yes, yes, but R, he used to live next to the B:s, and you know them, don't you?"
"I did, not so much anymore. Not so much anymore, no."
"Ha, ha!" (There is clearly some things one should know about the B:s - dark secrets...)
"L talks a lot of nonsense, too."
"But I suppose she must've known about R's being ill?"
"I don't remember if you said it already, but how is he ill?"

12 December 2007

"It's natural and real, but not for you and me my love..."

Can "sex" be separated from "gender"?
Are there bodily differences, which have a "neutral", non-political status?

What does it mean to say: usually when we talk and interact with people, we are not in doubt about the sex of the person with whom we are talking?

This is a tricky question. In many ways. One point here is, of course, that it is not always clear. I am sometimes interrogated about my sex when I am visiting public toilets. It is always hard to come up with something intelligent to say in these situations. I usually say something stupid ("Well, in fact I am a ..."). Once I was so scared that I ran out of the toilet, my errand undone (but I didn't go to the other one.). But there are also more positive experiences. At the local pub, where all sorts of people are hanging out, I was asked, when standing in front of the toilet mirror with another person, "I don't know what you are. What are you, a boy a girl?" This time, I wasn't even attempting to reply. I simply made a gesture of desparation. The person seemed to grasp my predicament, because the response was: "Well, it doesn't really matter after all, does it?" That reply revealed the very artificiality of the question. Nowadays, I am a little bit braver with regard to my toilet habits (well, this is a blog, isn't it, a sanctuary for juicy confessions?). I go to whatever toilet is free. Sometimes.

Why would somebody say that "in most cases, it is obvious that a person is a woman/a man"? Well why, then, is it so obvious? Biology does not seem to have a very straightforward role here, even if that is the idea, that we are discussing sex, not gender. I have another haircut (or lack of it) now, than I did a year ago. I am not refused entrance to toilets that often anymore. We are not exactly talking about biology here, are we?

If some stupid gender hang-ups were to disappear, I guess many things would change. It would not matter so much whether a person "is a man or a woman". As it is now, most people dress quite conservatively. Wearing sex on one's sleeve, as it were. (Kids, for example, are usually dressed up so as to embody a particular gender. If they were not, I guess many things would be different.) Some things are considered "wrong". My mother is fond of telling me how I can and can't dress, and she is very persistent in making her judgement appear as if based on biological facts. The point I want to make is: in the present situation, it is very intelligible that "people in between" who do not fit into the stereotypes, appear to be exceptions to the rule. That said, it is hard to persist in pressing the obviousness of sex/gender differences. Sex, in opposition to gender, is said to be concern genitalia and nothing more. But when people want to defend the thesis, they talk about how we appear as women and men.

If we were to perceive the world differently, different questions and concerns would arise.

We sometimes think that some questions - about sex in opposition to gender - are innocent, non-political. I don't agree with this at all. The question "is it a boy or a girl?" when asked of a newborn child, is not a request for some piece of neutral information. People are killed for being "born as a girl". "I didn't expect a girl, we always thought the foetus was a boy." Well, are those questions appealing to a neutral piece of biology?

Questions, even about bodies, are asked in particular circumstances. All right, we are born with particular bodies, equipped with particular genitalia. I guess we can say that. But what this will come to mean, exactly what "having a particular body" amounts to, well that is an open question. Am I saying that the distinction between sex and gender is illusory? Yes, I do. Do I intend to say that "there is no sex"? My response would be: let's not get involved in fuzzy ontological questions here. They are uninteresting and confusing. Struggles, difficulties, understandings, etc. - this is interesting. Do I say that bodies do not matter? Well of course they do. But let's not drag bodies into some strange metaphysical domain of "biological facts". Please?

Let's assume that I do know that you are a girl. Ok? What does that mean? When would that actually become an interesting piece of information? In what sense are we always "aware" of each others as gendered beings? In my humble opinion, there is no neutral "awareness" here. My being aware of particular things tells you something about who I am, what I find important. I have a hard time understanding the idea that we are sex-ed beings in a totally general sense. "There are these neutral differences of sex, which are expressed in our awareness of each others as men and women, but political questions are different." I don't get it. The situations, in which we find it intelligible, or important, to talk about something as having to do with "women", "men", "female", "male" reveal something about how we see the world. That is, as I am trying to say, not a neutral fact.

I do not have some tacit awareness of you as a man/woman. I don't understand what that would mean. "If somebody would ask me if I was talking to a man or a woman, I would usually be able to reply." Yeah, but isn't the question quite peculiar? It is not asked out of the blue, out of some sort of general interest. Let's say that I am referring to a conversation about progressive music. You ask: "is your friend a guy or a girl?" My immediate reaction would concern the motivation of your question. What do you mean? Do you mean that guys are more prone to like progressive music? The idea that sex is simply some general presupposition in our lives doesn't seem to make much sense.

Reading Judith Butler opened my eyes in some ways. She talks about gender as an activity. I agree with her about that. Some of her points are maybe a little bit misleading but at least she makes illuminating points about the sex/gender distinction.

Names, for example. Why are most Swedish, Finnish and English names considered either male or female? Is it a simple, neutral, expression of our understanding of each others as beings equipped with certain genitalia? No way, man. Something else is at stake. My mother would say: "But why do you always want to change everything? Isn't it good as it is? Don't you realize that we are different?"

Oh mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head.

10 December 2007

Crossing the bridge

Gegen die Wand by Fatih Akin was a brilliant movie. One thing I liked about it was its lack of stereotypes; the viewer wasn't fed familiar patterns of the-oppressed-woman-as-a-victim even if it did deal with exactly those problems; expectations of what a person's life should be like, seeing her as a "woman" and a "Turkish woman". My impression was that Akin showed the fuck-finger to many stereotypes in film/reality and, at the same time, he managed to present a very multi-faceted story about the fucked-up lives of two human beings.

Tonight I watched another film of his, Crossing the bridge, a documentary about the music scene in Istambul. Alexander Hacke (Einstürzende Neubauten) is the Virgil of the film. At the beginning, I was slightly bored by a few of the rockers, who seemed to play boring music and who had very little interesting to say. (OK, the hip-hop artists and Baba Zula made very interesting performances) The rest of the film was pure magic. It showcased many types of music but the latter part of the film focused much more on the music itself than what was the case in the beginning of the film (which consisted of short clips combined with interviews). My point is not to say that "non-rock music" would present a more "genuine" picture of the Istambul music scene. The artist presented as a famous "diva" made a glorious appearence performing a haunting song, one of her hits from the 80's. All in all, the film make me want to check out new music.

8 December 2007

Roads to koktebel

Roads to Koktebel is the story of a father and his son travelling from Moscow to Koktebel, Crimea. The characters develop in a way that made me think of The Return (Vozvrashcheniye) by Andrei Zvyagintsev. Not only are both films about father-son relationships, both directors lend their characters an air of mystery. They are enigmatic, but not boring. Drab landscapes play a major part in the film. The characters can be said to form another aspect of the drabness. They are obviously longing for something else, but it is unclear exactly why the father sees Koktebel as a magical resort. Dialogue was very sparse, and the focus of the pictures was also peculiar at times - with a stunning, meditative result.

Hints of sentimentality bothered me a little. Films that over-employ a particular metaphor - in this film it was flying - usually feel a little bit contrived. The use of too much metaphor gives me the impression that the director wants us to understand her film metaphorically, and, in my opinion, this tends to make the film less sensitive to particular human beings, particular mileaus, particular atmospheres. But this is only a side remark in this case. Encounters between the protagonists and other characters were usually subtly presented. Even the robustness of some of the characters was described interestingly, with a twist. The son escapes from his father who has settled down for the winter. He runs into a bear-like truck driver. The truck driver lifts the kid on his shoulders and hollers "MEAT!!" and then he kindly drives the boy to his destination. "Soooo keeewwt", as the youtube commentator would have it.

If you are interested in contemporary Russian film, The Russian ark by Aleksandr Sokurov is a must. Beautiful, dream-like and overwhelming. The film is famous for it's being filmed in one take, but I can assure you that this is not the only reason to watch it. While historical movies do not usually belong to my gebiet (dull costumes, stiff dialogue), this one is something different. Due to its dynamic camerawork, I experienced the entire movie as a dance. Regrettably, I haven't seen any other film of his.

6 December 2007

6/12, war heroes and global capitalism

In Finland, independence day is a quiet and serene day. The streets are empty. A day for reflection on war & peace. The film Unknown soldier is shown every year by public service TV. (Fittingly, yet another film about WW2 is released today.) There is a big ball at the persident's castle to which celebrities and the élite are invited. War heroes are the first to enter the ball and greet the president. The clothing of the élite is criticized by commentators, whose task it is to entertain the TV watchers with gossip and information about who-is-who. The state of the nation. One TV channel has the good taste to broadcast a program about dirt after the president's ball. I salute you, FST5!

I am celebrating independence day reading Proust, Guermantes way. He has got an excellent nose for the rhetoric of the élite, of what it is to consider oneself or others parts of "the cream of society". In Finland, creme de la creme consists of stern-looking politicians, war heroes, million dollar corporate managers and musicians/actors who have "made it" abroad.

Finland as a land of societal order and success is praised in the editorial of Helsingin sanomat (the dragon of newspapers in Finland). This year it is 90 years since Finland was approved as an independent state. The bourgeoise bias of HS is revealed in the historical role they assign to right wing party politics - it is almost as if they say: it is right wing politics that created the foundation for this country's success. The periods of social democrat governments are described as a continuation of right wing politics - this is stated clearly in the editorial and, historically, there may be some truth in that as well.

In the editorial, there are hints of criticism of global injustice, but I am surprised to see the intepretation that this is due to technological changes, rather than political forces. "Maailmanlaajuiset suuryritykset toimivat oman logiikkansa mukaan, ja poliittisten päätöksentekijöiden täytyy siihen haasteeseen osata vastata." (Global corporations are acting according to a logic of their own, and political actors should respond to their challenge.) I am not really sure in what way the concept of "logic" is employed here. The use of this concept will lead to the reign of corporations bein seen as a necessity. All the surrounding world can do is to respond. HS warns us against too much scepticism about global capitalism. It is due to global capitalism, they argue, that Finland has achieved its present wealth. "Yritteliäisyyden merkitystä ei voi liikaa korostaa." (The impact of entrepreneurship cannot be emphasized too much") For this reason, I am also surprised to see that the editorial is defending the role of the public sector. Of course, I would not want to argue with this.

Still, there is something about the tone of the editorial that is quite typical of a particular Finnish way (common in the press) of impersonating the State in a peculiar way: as the worried, responsibility-taking, advising voice of the Father, to whom one should not act rebelliously. Exhortations the force of which are grounded on belief in the authority of "the deciding parties".

5 December 2007

cocks versus brains: on musical "quietism"

If people ask me what type of music I like I usually say that I tend to listen to quiet music. Pompous, rambunctious or over-produced music usually has little impact on me. There are many, many exceptions of course, but this is a tendency of mine.

Reading reviews of "quiet" music is, however, a quite annoying affair. Let me quote the end of a Pitchfork review of norwegian band Supersilent: "There's no small talk, because small talk would be distracting, disingenous, and would cover up what's in their minds and hearts-- which is what 8 delivers, pared to its most honest form. Why waste a single breath?" Throughout the entire article the quiet sound of the record is analyzed and emphasized. In this review, as in so many others, metaphors are employed so as to capture exactly how quiet and stern the sound really is. In this case, the reviewer talks about the sound as a representation of Norway plus his experience of not so talkative Nordic people at a Thanksgiving dinner. Oh my. (In Finland, the stereotype of Norwegians is a happy, pleasant person whose life is dedicated to outdoor sports) OK, yes. Supersilent's music is not loud. It is jazzy and groovy, too, but it is not the type of jolly grooves of chill-out radio channels.

Reading this review, I realized how common it is to make a big number out of music being quiet. And what is more, music considered quiet is often described as music stripped down to the bare bones of sounds or melodies ("minimalism"). This "type" of music is described as a reduction, as a more or less conscious effort to bring it down to the most precious, small world of sound. To turn the volume down almost as if that was a project in itself. Obviously, this description may be true of some bands. On some albums, you can really hear the effort, you can really hear the stripping down, the clinical deconstruction. I guess this is the way I react to some kraut music from the seventies. (But this description of course reveals how I react to it: that I find it a tad too elaborated). The image of stern academics who have locked themselves into the studio to make a masterpiece of whispers is sometimes misplaced. Reviewers of particular forms of rock music makes it sound as if everything which does not sound like U2 or Britney Spears or English lad-rock is terribly elaborated, sophisticated music with a certain aim of stretching the limits of how quiet ones music can become.

My point is a banal one: where is the image of whimsical, fun, relaxed and non-pretentious bands who make "quiet music"? Why is "quiet music" so easily lumped together with a craving for authenticity and seriousness (i.e. world-angst)? Perhaps the burden of proof is placed on me: can I mention music that will make this image come to life? Well... Supersilent's album 6 is actually a case in point here. (I haven't heard their latest album yet) Colleen's music is quiet for sure at times, but it is not academic, nor is it particularly melancholy or angsty. Mi and L'au is yet another example. Very unpretentious music. So is Stina Nordenstam. But I wouldn't say that their music express an attempt to sound honest or stripped-down-to-the-bare-bones. If a band sounds as if that is what is going on, then I am immediately turned off. (Music that tries to convince one of what it is that one hears is questionable, however common it is.)

Perhaps I am just tired of an idea about laddish rock which is contrasted with something else so that a very strange dichotomy is born: the jolly, spontaneous music of Oasis and the academic-sounding post-rockers who've read too much music theory and who have a desperate need to give an impression of honesty. (Cocks vs. brains) My suspicion is that this picture is far too simplifying and that it tends to distort some of our experiences of music. How particular rock bands are praised for their straightforwardness, their youth, while other bands are hastily labeled as academic and boring - where a more appropriate description would be that the "lads" make contrived music, while the other band's music expresses curiosity and freshness. I have read far too many articles where youth is understood in terms of "cocks" and where maturity is understood in terms of professionalism and high-brow excursions.

What I need: unpretentious, gritty, fun, quiet music - this would change the picture a bit.
What I don't need: one more review praising the sexual potence of Oasis type of rock or a review trying to pin down exactly to what megaherz the latest pitchfork favorites has turned down the volume.

3 December 2007

On Thinking

Wittgensteinians on Tjuvlyssnat.se:

Falun centrum

Tjej ~20: Kan du typ prata med dig själv i huvudet?
Kille ~20: Ja, det är väl inte svårt!?
Tjejen: Men alltså ha munnen stängd och prata med dig själv, fast tyst.
Killen: Ja!Tjejen: Så du kan säga typ "bajs" eller nåt? I huvudet.
Killen: Öh, ja. Tänka kallas det!
Tjejen: Är det tänka? Jag trodde det var typ när man funderade på saker. Inte när man sa nåt till sig själv… i huvudet… tyst.

2 December 2007


On our way home we met a person whom most of the villagers dislike; "well, you cannot trust her; she tells you whatever is on her mind and usually it is not nice". For my own part, I find her open and honest. Her honesty makes it easy to talk to her, to engage in real conversation, not just casual pleasantries ("well, yes, I am still a student..."). She talked about her job at a home for elderly people. We talked a bit about why nurses are usually employed there for short periods of time. What effects that has on people. We also talked about what it means for an old person, who is perhaps suffering from Alzeimer, to be sent away from the village to an institution far from home, where the person will not see her relatives often.

My grandmothers both stayed at homes for old people towards the end of their lives. One of them was practically unconscious for many years. It was hard to visit them - or, rather, I found it hard to do it, and I felt bad for feeling that way. Why? It is horrible to watch a person tied to a chair, restless, stairing at a TV broadcasting animal programs. Being unable to talk, to walk, hardly noticing that another person is in the room. And most of all it was hard to hear some of the nurses talking to her in a way resembling baby talk and/or soliloquy. How is one supposed to act naturally in an environment the clinical nature of which evokes nothing but death and misery? Becoming more and more aware of particular difficulties, my grandmothers used to say that they did not want to end up in a home. It was easy to grasp their fear. Certain names, by themselves, evoked the kind of destiny they were afraid that one day would be their own.

Sometimes my grandmother reacted to the presence of us with a smile of sudden recognition. In a shrill voice she was sometimes able to comment on the beauty of a flower or to ask a question about the whereabouts of a particular person. Her inquiries usually concerned my father. Is he at home? Is he catching any fish?

So it was not always bad. M, my other grandmother, lived in a quite relaxed, smaller home, where people at least seemed to view each others as friends, rather than reducing others to "nurse" and "that confused old hag". When me & my sister went to see my grandmother we usually bumped into a very eccentric old lady who dressed fancy and whose vocabulary was that of a law book. One day my sister was wearing a feminist T-shirt. "Sisterhood". The lady excusingly tried to hint at her own heterosexuality - at least I understood it in that way. - Her explanation included terms and relations from the world of business contracts. She talked about her relation to her teddybear which she carried around with her in terms of legal ownership. We sat down with her and she told us about her childhood in St. Petersburg and the value of having an education. She was the opposite of everything my own grandmother stood for. My grandmother was "rustic" and despised anything considered fancy or sophisticated. Her mother tongue was Finnish and her Swedish was a bit peculiar. I can only imagine what the interaction between them must have looked like. But then again, you never know in whom you suddenly find a friend.

1 December 2007

Eternal questions

Mama asks me what I, being a philosopher and all, think will happen to us when we die.
Do I have an opinion about the kids buying beer from the village shop to their younger friends? Isn't it horrible?
What do I want for Christmas? Do I need something? Something for the kitchen?
Did I remember to deliver the package of deer meat to my friend? Was he happy?
How come I did not recognize E, the man who lived next to us many years ago?
Do I live well on my paycheck? Am I indulging in lavish spending?
Did I see the eagle above the trees?

I don't know mama. I don't know.