31 October 2008

Tummens mamma

Quality TV from back in the days.

30 October 2008

A note from Simone Weil

"The human is a social animal, and the social is evil. We cannot do anything about it, and yet we cannot accept it if we do not want to lose our souls. Life can thus be nothing but laceration. This world is uninhabitable. And therefore we must escape to the other. But the door is closed. How long we must knock before it opens! In order truly to enter, not to remain on the threshold, one must stop being a social being."


28 October 2008

On populism, True Finns and political honesty

Perussuomalaiset ("True Finns"), a populist right-wing party, did well in the local council elections last Sunday along with Kokoomus ("National coalition party", also to the right), gaining 5.4 % of the votes. I'm watching a few YouTube videos & reading a few articles to be more informed about what this party & Timo Soini are about. (I just realized I still have a bottle of Absinth at home. Good.) The first thing that struck me while watching an interview he did last year was the proficient use of third person references. "This is the Soini opinion." "This is the way Soini thinks." Perussuomalaiset are true to the populist tradition in their constant insistence of "suoraa puhetta" (a politician who "tells it like it is"). A rule of thumb with regards to politics is, I think, that politicians who see the need to back up their opinions by emphasizing how "honest" and "frank" they are, should not be taken to provide the best description of themselves. A blog post published on Helsingin Sanomat's home page discussing the result in Vantaa sums up a quite common attitude to the election results:

Perussuomalaisten vaalivoitto tuo varmasti melkoisen piristysruiskeen valtuustokeskusteluihin. Puolueen kuusi tuoretta valtuutettua tietävät ratsastavansa protestiäänillä ja ovat varmasti valmiita haastamaan vanhat vallanpitäjät. Haaste on tervetullut. [....] Jos hyvin käy, perussuomalaisten ryhmä tuo politiikan takaisin Vantaan politiikkaan. (The election success will probably bring with it an energy injection for the council discussions. The 6 newly elected council members know that they are dependent on protest votes and they are probably ready to challenge the power elite. This is a healty challenge. [....] In the best case scenario, the True Finns will bring politics back to the Vantaa politicians.) Source.

I am not very convinced by this prospect. I would be hard pressed to talk about the True Finns as an "energy injection" because that seems to presuppose that a populist party's "challenging" of the mainstream in itself will mean that there will be plenty of room for real political struggles, alternatives or discussions in what is taken to be an otherwise gray scale with no political differences. As if the other parties will feel that they have to take a stand on the issues raised by The True Finns - be it questions about immigration or something else - meaning that this will bear with it deeper reflection on these issues. I am afraid that the opposite is the case. Some political analyst has already said that successful populist parties usually will make "mainstream" parties approach their political language. I think there is a point in that. But even more important is, I think, to point out the mistaken hope that provocations have something to do with real conversations or honest reflection. If you say that the True Finns are dependent on protest voters, and thus that they are trying to prey on some quite undefined level of resentment or opposition to "politicians" then I think we have already closed down the possibility that this particular political stance could be an inspiring "energy injection". How about Dansk Folkeparti, Fremskrittspartiet or Jörg Haider's lot - or Berlusconi - have they functioned as "energy injections" for the political climate in Denmark, Norway or Austria or Italia? Well, I don't think so.

Of course people protest against populist parties. They piss a lot of people off. A big march was organized in Italy recently, in which it became apparent that a large portion of Italians are not so happy with the way politics is done right now. But if I would define populism I would characterize it as a silencing of serious discussion. Timo Soini doesn't want to discuss immigration. He has already decided that Finns are a united people and that "we" should have a right to "our" country.

When being interviewed by journalists, Soini and fellow party members are always confronted with questions about to what extent they prescribe to racist politics. The normal way in which the question is shrugged off is by repeating some mantra: "When in Rome...." or bland claims according to which The True Finns are not "racist per se" but that they are "simply" sceptical of immigration and "multiculturalism".

I cannot for the world see in what way these types of statements would be "energy injections".

27 October 2008

Finnish music

1. Ville Leinonen (sometimes assisted by the Valumo band) is an unpredictable artist. I haven't catched up with his latest projects, but the music I've heard by him so far has covered diverging grounds: trashy experiments in the spirit of Tom Waits' The Black Rider, radio-friendly suomipoppia and hazy dream pop. Kimaltavia Unelmia belongs to the last category. In some strange way Ville Leinonen manages to get away with cheesy and sentimental songs that could have been recorded in 1958 in New York, still sounding contemporary and, what is even more interesting, stretching out the sound to extreme heights of grandiosity without loosing one bit of relevance. The question about irony is open-ended. I don't know. He's not really offering baroque pop as crafted and developed by Jens Lekman and fellow Swedes. It's....fairy tales... A record where romance almost always aberrs into something scary or crazy (Listen to "Pikkusisko" and you will know what I mean). This record has been the soundtrack of two of my latest drunken escapades at Bristol. Ville Leinonen is good company.

There is something about Ville Leinonen that makes me imagine him in the Viking Line nightclub, dressed in a golden suit, singing broken-hearted ballads in a voice weighed down by many a champagne filled night, to retired people drinking their heads and tails off while shuffling from one end of the dancefloor to another. This picture makes me like his music even more, as a matter of fact. Ville Leinonen makes music that could be played on Radio Suomi at 4 o'clock in the morning, in between the news and some traffic information announced by some Pentti or Anna-Liisa.
2. I first heard the elusive songs of Tommi Liimatta's Absoluuttinen nollapiste in 2000. My linguistic skills with regards to Finnish are not excellent, but that didn't lessen my admiration for this guy's strange lyrics about Elvis, dogs, the weather - everything commonplace suddenly reappearing from the point of view of, what I would call, wonder. This was the early days. Absoluuttinen nollapiste were influenced by the flourishing and imaginative sound of progressive rock (Wigwam) along with, I think, surrealism. Since then, their style has approached the mainstream, and all that which created a sense of magic and weirdo existentialism has disappeared. Now, my favorite album by this band is Suljettu and it was released in 1999. Even though some of the lyrics create fun and dissonant images, there is a threatening darkness lurking beneath the surface and it is turned loose on the last 20-minute track. Lyrically, the band is rooted in rural settings; the village idiot, building projects, cartoons, family iconoclasms. It's a consistent record, a concept album, with songs that still create a weave with many seams. The element of progressive rock is still there, but the impulsive sense of fun that one hears on the earliest records is now exchanged with something darker, more restrained.

This record makes me think of my mother's family, their arguments, nagging, finnish-åländish, firemen, death, hospitals, secrets, fun.

3. The Tampere-based Fonal record label has stirred up some attention in the internationalized world of indie/folk/avantgarde music. I regard Islaja as the most interesting artist among the Fonal bands. From the first track "Laivat saapuu" on Palaa Aurinkoon, Islaja's second release, we are thrown into another world. She moulds her sound carefully, with a great assortment of instruments, and a singing-style that comes across as chanting, exorcising, calling upon. What is it that the songs evoke? Often a lot of things at the same time, usually leaving me with a sense of unease and bliss at the same time. "Uni pöllönä olemisesta" is a prime example of what this album is like. Eerie lyrics - an owl that you are turned into and the face that is yours that you don't recognize, light that is not sun but fire - scares the crap out of me, aided by accoustic guitar, melodica and some other sounds. The cosy campfire turns out to be a pyre.

--- I start to feel ready for diving into older stuff now. It's been a few years. Olavi Virta. Tango. Entertainment music. Georg Malmstén.

26 October 2008

Vinokino 2008

One of the few good cultural events taking place in the culturally sometimes very conservative and commercially-minded Turku is the Vinokino film festival for queer film. This year I went to see two batches of short films and one long feature, Suddenly, last winter, an Italian documentary about the hopeless resistance from politicians to a law draft suggesting (some minimalist) rights for gay and unmarried people (the right to visit one's partner at the hospital, acknowledgement of partnership and so on). But the few fore-runners of the law in the Prodi government have few allies in the Italian parliament. Ever-lasting meetings are held and new negotiation groups are formed. Luca and Gustav, journalists and lovers, undertake a journey to the heart of darkness. They conduct interviews with people in a fascist march, religious rallies, political meetings. At one point of the film Luca sums the kinds of situation they find themselves in quite neatly: "Why should we interview these people? They are like broken records. They say the same things over and over again." After the film, Gustav Hofer replied to questions from the audience. One of the interesting things he said was that EU takes a lot of issues with economic pressure, but with regards to civil rights, EU is not quite as eager to take action.

Among the short films, there were a few good ones.

Braedrabylta Wrestling: Wrestlers in Iceland
Tango Finlandia: Tango, two men, a fight - love.
Kompisar: A sensitive depiction of male friendship that might or might not turn into something different
The saddest boy in the world: Dark-humoured tale about a boy who is all wrong.
Uralin perhonen got a lot of attention in Finnish media before almost anyone had seen it, the reason being that one of this animated film's protagonists is C.G. Mannerheim, by many Finns conceived as the ultimate war hero. In this feature, our war hero loves nobody but the boy he has found somewhere east off the Ural mountains. What makes the film such a pleasant experience is the music, Russian folk music.

21 October 2008

Deltahead - Deltahead

Contemporary blues from....Sweden! Deltablues, gritty as hell. Have heard very little music that reaches this level of energy, though I have heard too many who've tried. A fist in the stomach. "Your mama is to lazy to pray". "Don't move to Finland". The titles says it all. Lyrics along the lines of "I smile at you I smile at you I take your money and fuck you in the...." Music from the swamp or from the bottom of the keg or the factory floor ("This piece of machinery"). Or the dance floor moved by Spirit. Racing guitars, pounding drums, stand-up bass! A bluesier The Gossip, a faster-paced The Black Keys. Some Muddy Waters. This music makes me insanely happy. Damn it, these types should be more well known. I didn't know there was blues like this out there. Bulldozer blues.

20 October 2008

Academic work ii

My text has started to live a life of its own. It grows furiously. It has got four heads and one tail (many tales). Yellow slime is dripping from its nose. Its belly is filled with rottening fish. That has to do with its digestion. Very slow. Don't feed it rotten fish, don't feed it slow-digested food. It's stomach will explode. It goes where it wants and it does what it has to. If I kill a darling, another one will appear in its place. Darlings appear in ever-increasing numbers. Replicants, mutants, zombies, ghosts. Doppelgängers in herds. They never die. They prowl the screen and breath in my ear. Yeah, don't forget me, we're still here. This is what you thought, hang on to me. They prey on each other, they prey on me, they prey on space. A thundering voice in my head. The voice is not mine. "Don't fiddle with the economy! Don't fiddle with the economy!" And two years later, I'm dappling with the economy, the economies, the eco-nomy. It growls like a bear. Don't wake it up. It's sleeping text, donthcha see? It's sleeping.

19 October 2008

Happy-go-lucky: Mike Leigh's fuck-you to cynism

*spoiler alert*

Some people have criticized British director Mike Leigh for having portrayed women as saint-like incarnations of perfect goodness in film after film. I agree that one of the biggest, and ugliest, clichés in movies - and in life - is the depiction of a woman who goes through sacrifice and self-annihilation to save a troubled man. There are enough clean-hearted martyr women to pray beside Raskolnikov's bed as it is, for sure. There are enough "empathic, understanding and good" women figures who heal the wounds of and shed tears for assholes on film and I don't want to see another.

After having seen Leigh's latest film, Happy-go-lucky, I am convinced he has pondered a great deal on these pictures of women as jesus-like healers saving the souls of crazed or inclosured males. When we are first introduced to Poppy (the name, the name!), the protagonist of the film, I sense my fears coming true. Poppy is happy. Poppy wears colorful clothes. Poppy greets the stone-faced clerk and talks to him even though he displays no reaction whatsoever to her presence. It creeps onto me, that Poppy is "naive", that something bad will happen to her. Bad things happen to naive people. We've seen that before, haven't we? Poppy takes driving lessons. Her driving instructor, Scott, is so uptight that he is about to explode at every single moment. For him, Poppy is the typical woman who cannot focus, who is vain (wears boots not suited for driving) and who shouldn't really drive a car in the first place. Poppy is a primary school teacher. She cares about bullying among the kids. When she is enamoured with the social worker who is sent for to look into the case of one of the students, everything looks perfect. And so on.

At this point, I am anxious to see the grit, the problems, the ugliness of things and life come into the picture. Well, this can't be it, can it?

One of the scenes in the film is revealing of what Leigh tries to show us. On the way home, Poppy goes through a park. She sees a tramp, and when she approaches him, he starts talking to her, incoherently. Poppy listens and responds to him. She tries to give him money, but he declines. The whole scene elicits a number of reactions in me, and afterwards, I realize that it is my own reactions that makes the scene what it is. The dark, frightening park: what is her business there? Isn't she afraid? Isn't she disgusted by the tramp? Why does she do it? - These questions says something about me, not Poppy. She perceives no threat and there is no contempt in her responses to the tramp. I am ashamed of how I think of it all; what I expect to happen (she will get raped! she will get killed!). In a masterly way, Mike Leigh turns us back onto ourselves. If I think Poppy is annoying or naive or "too open", I will have to take responsibility for that. The persuasion of the film - I would argue that there is an element of persuasion at play - consists in some familiar clichés that are re-evaluated by the film and by means of this re-evaluation, I turn to my own reactions towards the character of Poppy. The film's intelligent, not shrewd, play with clichés and expectations does not make me alienated from the story or make me feel cheated as the film ends. I do not feel that Leigh has played a trick on me in that he has brought some of my embarrassing, not so flattering reactions and interpretations to ligth.

I think, instead, that I learned something.

Poppy's goodness enrages some of the characters in this film. Poppy's outlook on life makes her sister, dreaming of the perfect suburban, bourgeoisie life, think about what she herself has become. "You think you live the perfect life!" she shouts at Poppy. - "The perfect life", from the sister's point of view, turns into an accusation. And, man, do I recognize this, in myself: Your happiness makes me mad, - it's too good, it can't be real.... There must be something fishy. But it is my rage that is fishy (I think Plato discusses something like this, but I can't recall where, Gorgias? Symposion?).

The end of the film is stunning. Poppy's boyfriend drives her to her horrid driving lesson. Scott is enraged at the situation. He blurts out how he sees her: that everything she's done up til now has been one big Invitation to him: she's been nice, she's been wearing sexy boots. And now it turns out she already has somebody. Scott's perception of Poppy is one hell of a male projection, and as a viewer I realize I am not in a much better position than Scott in this respect. I, too, am guilty of projection. Poppy won't take Scott's shit. She doesn't put up with his uptight manner and after his small 'confession' and moment of gushing aggression she decides to decline further instruction from him. No 'saving' takes place. Scott explodes - Poppy realizes that she should not be in a car with this guy. That's it. Goodness is not sheepishness.

Happy-go-lucky is the most clear-sighted movie I've seen since Little miss sunshine. Symptomatically, both are considered lightweight comedies. Both films beat the shit out of cynical tendencies and "life is brute and lonely"-mentality.

"Work hard!!!!"

I'm reading an article in which the journalist has talked to Sarah Palin-fans about in what way they see an Obama administration in the White House as a disaster for the US. Most of the answers are about the prospect of not being able to "work hard" in Obama's socialist empire. "I'm worried that we will become a socialist country in which people who want to work hard and be innovative will be punished....", "I work hard for my my money. Nobody has the right to take them away from me." "America is a good country because you can reach your goals. If you work hard you have the possibility to be successful." "We want to work hard and be successful."

"Hard work" is seemingly linked with prosperity and success in these statements, but "hard work" seems to be about something else as well. It is almost as if people think that some new tax requirements will take away what is most important in people: the drive to create a successful life. But there is something I don't quite understand here. If you want to work hard, why do you see economic incentives as central to that? On the one hand, there is this "work morale" spirit, on the other, the idea about "economic incentives" presupposes that we would do nothing if we are not payed an insanely large amount of money for it (or at least have the prospect of earning an insane amount of money). If my paycheck barely covers my daily costs, then I might consider changing job. But in these quotes, "working hard" and "being successful" have nothing to do with anything concrete, it seems to me. It's "principles". "You shouldn't be punished for working hard!" - But it is only from a completely fetishized perspective on money that taxes which make possible health care for more people etc., etc. will appear to be "a punishment".

I want to ask the irreverent question: Why do you want to work so hard?

18 October 2008

the oddities of fashion

My lack of interest in clothes has become more and more apparent over the years and it is with a deepening sense of Kierkegaardian dread I venture out to do some primitive shopping. Shops tend to make me furious, red-faced, dripping with sweat like a poor beast. 'Casual' strolling among the racks is always accompanied by the sense that someone, the Fashion Fascist, is looking at me funnily. I tend to feel like the guy in the gray overcoat who has some dirty stuff on his mind and even more in his drawers ('I shouldn't be here!'). My friend tried to convince me of something essential by telling me how important it is that we are aware how we are 'read'. I sighed as audibly as I could to make clear how odd I found his 'postmodern' tone. You, for example, he said mercilessly (after having dissected the critical comments directed at himself by the everyman Äijä) 'will be read as the typical, boring academic who dresses like a dude'. Fashion is fun, he tried to explain to me, but all I could here was a quite moralistic idea about how and why we should be "original", because it's so fun to stand out from the crowd. Feeling at home in one's clothes means the world to me. But the present world of genderism and shit like that makes homeliness difficult for me, when the body and one's general appearance is made into some kind of thing to be read and interpreted. For that reason, there is something about "fashion" that makes me queasy, even though I know I there are challenging and subversive ideas and solutions. Maybe it's a specific attitude that appears to be "detached", "critical" and "relaxed" but comes out as something else, as some set of requirements or standards that one should take into account, that bothers me (personally). I agree with my friends that clothes can be fun, but I often loose the sense of fun. Another friend of mine now and then warns me about the prospects of becoming-Sture - one of the teachers we had in primary school who always wore gray clothes and talked in an even grayer way. It is a revealing fact about me that I think Sture is one of the coolest persons in this world and I don't find it at all offensive to have him as a fashion icon.

That said, you know what? I miss my furry mittens! I bought them at a generic-capitalist, exploitative store for a delightful price and fell in love with them instantaneously. Those furry gloves, the fur was not real, of course, made me half-bear, half-person. My gloves were anti-human. They did not really protect my poor hands from cold and wind, as the gloves were too big and too wide for my physionomy - but nonetheless, I cared about those gloves more than I cared about anything else. The gloves only added to my clumsiness, but in a cool way. Not very sophisticated or 'grown-up', but very nice indeed. Gripping and fiddling and graceful movement in general were transformed into rather impossible undertakings. The love story with my furry gloves tragically came to an end one rainy day (those gloves were not suited for rain; when it rained, I felt like a wet dog) when one of the gloves, by accident, dropped to the street outside one of my favorite places on earth - K-Puhakka.

And there was the Luther cap. You know the picture of pudgy-looking Luther with the black hat? Well, a friend gave me a hat that resembled Luther's. I soon became totally at ease with the lutheran look. If I wouldn't have lost the hat at a sleazy gas station café somewhere between Borgå and Turku, I would have buyed myself a cloak or a cowl. My morals might have improved. For a few years, I couldn't hold on to a hat for more than three weeks. Afther that, a black hole mysteriously appeared in the ground, swallowing my hat. That created something of a hat fetish in me. I was always in the hunt for a hat that would look like the Luther hat. I lost another one of my dearest hats, a scruffy-looking, green fisherman's hat, at the Prague airport. I continuously lament these tragic disappearances.

I was never seriously into grunge music, the Åland surrounding didn't make for that kind of sophistication. I was familiar with Nirvana and Alice in Chans, but apart from that, my grunge credibility has remained poor. Regarding clothes, however, I grew up with something of a grunge style. I had a super-thick flannel shirt (black, blue and green) that I wore until it was barely in one piece. Then I found the Boots. They were metallic green. It was the nineties. They were metallic green like a car. They were big, clumsy and heavy to the extent that I was barely able to walk (running becoming even more of an impossibility). I think my feet were bloody and sore during the first two weeks of wearing these boots, but I heroically hung on to them until they were so worn out that some parts started to fall off. I remember my first year at Uni - it was in 2000 - and how people pitifully glanced at those poor boots. I was hopelessly unfashionable - the nineties. Lord, I miss my metallic green boots.

Sometimes bump into people whose appearance and style of dressing makes me happy, existentially happy. At my dear K-Puhakka grocery store I used to run into this person (who was not a gender) who wore a long, black leather coat and other cloath articles along the lines of edgy gothwear. But in addition to that, s/he carried a purse/bag with a picture of a cute monster painted on it. Sometimes I wonder whether it would make sense to compliment a stranger for her&his clothes, but that is easily taken the wrong way. I also remember one lecturer's wife/partner whose agrarian, no-nonsense style of clothing - straight from the barn to the university! - made me feel all warm inside at the moment I first saw her. It might sound stupid, but her clothing made me think that this must be a good person. And she is.

17 October 2008

Academic work

My accomplishments this week. I wrote a very angry footnote. The footnote is about the way people are transformed into workforce. I will probably wipe it out in a few days. It's too political.

15 October 2008

Disclosing the mystery of human action: "Mirror neurons"?

I am not trained in science, which means that I know very little about scientific practice and theory-building. Once in a while I realize, however, that my training in philosophy helps me question some highly mystifying ideas that pop up within the field of psychology and neuroscience. Today I read about something that sounds very evocative and very cutting-edge: mirror neurons! (How on earth....? Well, I was looking at a review of a Virno book and he has apparently utilized the concept/theory in question). For what reason have scientists started talking about mirror neurons? Scientists want to grasp the ability of humans to act and to understand other people and their actions. Our abilities as linguistic beings belong here, too. How are these "abilities" to be explained? It is taken for granted that science could solve these "mysteries". In other words: scientists think that we can talk about "an ability" to understand another and that this ability could be explained empirically, relating it to some other thing/mechanism/function that shows by virtue of what we have that seemingly odd ability.

A monkey performs "a motor act". A specific class of neuron are fired. A monkey watches another individual perform the same or similar act - the same class of neurons is discharged. A hand is interacting with a specific object (a banana, not an apple). When the monkey sees some objects, the same class of neurons are not fired. This is, supposedly, the result of empirical tests (technicalities here). Empirical tests have also indicated mirror neurons in human brains.

From Scholarpedia: "What might be the functional role of the mirror neuron system? A series of hypotheses such as action understanding, imitation, intention understanding, and empathy have been put forward to explain the functional role of the mirror neurons. In addition to these, it has also been suggested that the mirror neuron system represents the basic neural mechanism from which language evolved. The question, however, of what is the function of the mirror neuron system is probably an ill posed question. Mirror neurons do not have a unique functional role. Their properties indicate, rather, that they represent a mechanism that maps the pictorial description of actions carried out in the higher order visual areas onto their motor counterpart. This matching mechanism may underlie a variety of functions."

How come we understand something as an action, and that we are not simply presented with this or that visual image? This question lies at the ground of the mirror neuron discussion. The involvement of the motor system of our brains is necessary for what it is to understand actions and to observe the similarity between events and movements. "Thus, the activation of the mirror circuit is essential to provide the observer with a real experiential comprehension of the observed action." (Scholarpedia) The fact that our brains function in this vein displays "a rudimentary form of social interaction" (ibid).

Experiments and theoretical models have suggested mirror neurons to explain - or at least to be involved in, provide "the functional mechanism" of - our grasp of intional behavior. "In this experiment volunteers were presented with hand actions without a context and hand actions executed in contexts that allowed them to understand the intention of the action agent. The main result of the study was the demonstration that actions embedded in contexts yielded selective activation of the mirror neuron system. This indicates that mirror areas, in addition to action understanding, also mediate the understanding of others’ intention (Iacoboni et al. 2005)." (ibid) I take all this to imply a view of actions as existing "in" the world, as natural entities. The mirror neuron scientists talk about actions at the level of "observation" as comprising of visual data worming its way into our brains which, hence, are argued to be equipped with the ability to make distinctions between what is an instance of the same action, and what is an instance of a different action.

Gallese on the findings of the macaque experiments: "Action observation causes in the observer the automatic activation of the same neural mechanism triggered by action execution." (ibid) Gallese is even talking about "a direct form of action understanding" and the ground for it provided by these empirical findings. "The same functional logic that presides over self-modeling is employed also to model the behavior of others: to perceive an action is equivalent to internally simulating it. This enables the observer to use her/his own resources to experientially penetrate the world of the other by means of a direct, automatic, and unconscious process of simulation." (ibid) What is simulation? It is, according to Gallese, "an automatic, unconscious, and pre-reflexive functional mechanism, whose function is the modeling of objects, agents, and events." (ibid) The triggering of mirror neurons thus has an epistemic content, summed up by Galles as "representational". And do note that we are still talking about brains, not human beings who react, think and feel!

In the end, we have to remember the logic implied here: mirror neurons are triggered by visual stimuli. I understand Gallese as saying that "visual stimuli" becomes "an action performed by an observer" by means of simulation triggered by mirror neurons.

Researchers have also tried to show that a specific set of neurons are fired when we experience something emotional and when we experience the same emotion in the facial expressions of others. When you see a spider crawl up someone's leg, you feel a creepy sensation because your mirror neurons are firing. In the words of Vittorio Gallese, who attempts to resist the solipsism nourished by cognitive science: "By means of intentional attunement, “the others” are much more than being different representational systems; they become persons, like us." (source) Later on, he explains his understanding of emotions: "Emotions constitute one of the earliest ways available to the individual to acquire knowledge about its situation, thus enabling to reorganize this knowledge on the basis of the outcome of the relations entertained with others." (ibid) The perspective employed here is extremely epistemological: emotions have to do with knowledge about people and what they will do next. "The sensory-motor system appears to support the reconstruction of what it would feel like to be in a particular emotion, by means of simulation of the related body state." In philosophy there is the classical analogy argument: I am able to know what you feel by drawing an analogy to myself in the same state. But here there is no need for an "intellectual" analogy; the analogy is inscribed in our sensory-motor systems. The gist of the argument is that mirror neurons make us experience "the same bodily state" as the other when we "observe" a specific facial expression.

The theory posed by Gallese is hard to understand without the background of questions in philosophy. "Such body-related experiential knowledge enables us to directly understand some of the actions performed by others, and to decode the emotions and sensations they experience." What is it that we understand when we understand the actions that other people perform? How can be know things about the mind of others? Traditionally, philosophy of action have dealt with these question by making a distinction between actions and events. They have proceeded by elaborating "action" as consisting of beliefs and desires. Traditional philosophy of action shares with Gallese the epistemological perspective that actions can be converted into a certain set of information about the world, albeit this information being combined with a specific interest (desire). The question about what constitutes "the same action" occupied early philosophy of action (Anscombe et cetera) but now that question has waned, at least to some extent. But for Gallese it becomes a pertinent one. He talks about actions as if they are natural classes existing in the world. "The event of gripping a banana".

It's hard to embark on the project of criticism with regard to "mirror neurons". Everything about it seems wrong and confused. The most striking thing about it is, in my opinion, the way perception is represented here as a neutral process of data somehow digested by our brains. "Successful perception requires the capacity of predicting upcoming sensory events." (ibid) A sad, angry or ironical face is here conceived as a specific (temporally fixated) set of data - a physical structure. Not only is that a totally hopeless approach to "facial expressions", it is also a misconceived picture of what it is to see and hear. We are not beings who "observe" the world in general, things being triggered within us. Take Anscombe's example (I don't like what she makes of it, but still.). I see a scary face in a window. It makes me jump. You see my strange demeanour. "What is it?" you say. I shudder, and explain what I just saw. Gallese could not say a word about this example, and this shows how impossible his view is. He talks about "facial expressions" and "actions" but none of it has to do with real interaction between people, even though that is somehow the focus of his interest. Was my scared expression simulated in your sensory-motor system? But for what do we need that hypothesis? What is it to explain? Gallese seems to pose a mystery, a gap, between "my actions" and "your actions", "my emotions" and "your emotions". But when you see me jump and when you wonder what has gotten into me, you are not seeking information. You react to me. That is what Gallese does not at all apprehend. For him, and for many philosophers as well, our understanding of each other has to be mediated by something, be it analogies or representations or belief&desires or mirror neurons. It is precisely that presupposition I find to be - excuse me - silly.

And now I have not said a word about the ways in which Gallese's hypothesis involves an idea about "a small man within our brain". But I think it does. "Our seemingly effortless capacity to conceive of the acting bodies inhabiting our social world as goal-oriented persons like us depends on the constitution of a “we-centric” shared meaningful interpersonal space." Dear Gallese: it is very strange to talk about "acting bodies"? When I perceive Mr Gallese in the midst of heated debate on mirror neurons or Mr Gallese sitting in his study, there is no level of primordial seeing that constitutes "the acting body" which has to be combined with some more stuff in order for me to see Mr Gallese argue or work in his study. (Questions might arise, but they are rarely related to our brains. "Is mister Gallese asleep? Or is he just thinking really hard about mirror neurons?" My brain will not fix the certainty or the uncertainty that might come into question. There is simply no general concept of certainty at play here.

An article from New York Times discusses the "cutting-edge" of mirror neurons. Laugh - or cry. I nudge my eyes, but yes. Over to Patricia Greenfield, U.C.L.A.: "Until now, scholars have treated culture as fundamentally separate from biology, she said. 'But now we see that mirror neurons absorb culture directly, with each generation teaching the next by social sharing, imitation and observation.'" (source) So the mirror neuron hypothesis/findings fit in neatly with evolutionary biology.

"Social emotions like guilt, shame, pride, embarrassment, disgust and lust are based on a uniquely human mirror neuron system found in a part of the brain called the insula, Dr. Keysers said. In a study not yet published, he found that when people watched a hand go forward to caress someone and then saw another hand push it away rudely, the insula registered the social pain of rejection. Humiliation appears to be mapped in the brain by the same mechanisms that encode real physical pain, he said." (ibid) I mean, seriously.

14 October 2008

Greed is good - to some extent?

I Dagens Nyheter från idag:

"I finanskrisens spår har röster höjts mot höga bonusutbetalningar och begreppet girighet använts flitigt.

- Det är inte olagligt att vara girig. I viss mån är det girigheten som driver marknadsekonomin. Det har funnits ett systemfel med svaga ägare som låter direktörerna roffa åt sig höga bonusutbetalningar och stor makt, säger Rikard Forslid."

Johnny Ace

I have this thing for brill building pop from the 50's and the early 60's. You might or might not know that. Generic, calculative pop performed by generic artists, all of them are called Bobby or Tommy, designed to attract the tastes of 14 year old girls - the stereotype of a 'girl' - suddenly turns into something quite magic. The songs tend to be about death. Violent death: car crashes. Puppy-eyed artists with silly hairdos croon about lost love in a manner that sometimes succeeds in sounding like the apocalypse draws near. The sound of the recordings is usually hollow and thick at the same time - after all these years, the effect is spooky. The attempt to create a "white" and "family-friendly" sound only adds to the dimension of spookiness. I have no idea how people reacted to it back then. The sweetness of the songs always verges of something utterly perverse. The innocence of teeny bop love might not be what it appears to be. There might be some blood in your milkshake, baby. A monster is lurking 'round that icecream bar corner.

All of this, and more, is captured in the songs of Johnny Ace. He did not, however, really belong to the brill building corps, I take it. He does pop, but also blues. The combination is great. There's a lot of raunchy&sultry saxophone and the adding of groovy xylophones on many tracks makes me think of Tim Buckley (which is weird). "Pledging my love" is one of his better known songs. Johnny Ace makes sleazy music the way I like it, to be enjoyed with a pint or seven. Damn! I love that saxophone.

Johnny Ace served in the navy during ww2. He was in the same band as Bobby "Blue" Bland. The music they made as solo artists have much in common: the soulful crooning, the blues, pop sensibility. He did tours with another fantastic blues artist - Big Mama Thornton. She did 'Hound dog' in such a way that Elvis' version bleakens in comparison. In 1954, Johnny Ace played a game of russian roulette with his girlfriend and a friend of hers. He pointed the gun at them, but the hammer fell on an empty chamber. When it was his turn, it did not.

13 October 2008

The bloody imagery of 19th century methodism

I'm reading E.P. Thompson's historical account of the English working class. It's a fun book that covers all kinds of issues and phenomena. At the moment I am skimming through his elaboration of the relation of methodism (a religion of exploiters and exploited alike) to ideas about discipline and labour. His point seems to be that the language of methodism was used in order to prop up the horrid working conditions of early industrialism with religious talk about "the virtue of labour". His book includes a section - this guy is a sucker for digressions - in which he discusses the religious imagery of early 19th century methodism. He points out the sexual connotations of "Satan" - a penis - and Jesus - a womb or a vagina in the oblivion of which the wrecked sinner takes comfort. The love affair between the sinner and Jesus is depicted as a very disturbing one. And then there's the blood. Thompson quotes some hymns:

We thirst to drink Thy precious blood,
We languish in Thy wounds to rest,
And hunger for immortal food,
And long on all Thy love to feast.

In one of his priceless concluding remarks, Thompson (who has little sympathy for 'apologetic secularists') writes: "To labour and to sorrow was to find pleasure, and masochism was 'love'." (Thompson 1968, p. 409) - From this point of view, he says, it seems completely natural that the only worthy occupation from a religious point of view should be one that involves pain and repulsion. Grace is to be found in torture and abasement. Mr. Wesley himself praises the beauty of death in the following manner:

Ah, lovely appearance of Death!
No sight upon Earth is so fair,
Not all the gay pageants that breathe
Can with a dead Body compare.
(ibid. p. 410)

Matmos: The rose has teeth....

“A new born child has no teeth.”—“A goose has no teeth.”—“A rose has no teeth.”—This last at any rate—one would like to say—is obviously true! It is even surer than that a goose has none.—And yet it is none so clear. For where should a rose’s teeth have been? The goose has none in its jaw. And neither, of course, has it any in its wings; but no one means that when he says it has no teeth.—Why, suppose one were to say: the cow chews its food and then dungs the rose with it, so the rose has teeth in the mouth of a beast. This would not be absurd, because one has no notion in advance where to look for teeth in a rose. ((connexion with ‘pain in someone else’s body’.))

Matmos: The rose has teeth in the mouth of a beast was released quite a few years ago. 2006, to be more exact. I love it. Now I know I am not the only person in this world to have an appreciation for Wittgenstein and Valerie Solanas. Good, dynamic music. Elecro, pop, jazz. Surf guitars! Damn good. The concept of the album is to craft musical portraits of persons ranging from Joe Meek to Patricia Highsmith and Wittgenstein (all of the characters featuring on the record are considered to be parts of "queer history"). It's a fun idea. Plus it works. And you don't even have to know the stories of the persons referred to in order to enjoy the songs.

I can tell you: I rather prefer "Roses and Teeth for Ludwig Wittgenstein" to ploughing through boring exegesis.

10 October 2008

Chivalrous values?

We met a man at Bristol yesterday. He was scary. He said scary things. One of them was:
"I have promised myself I would never, never hit a woman." I thought to myself: If you have to promise yourself that then I don't know. There is this strange, outrageous idea that a man's promise not to use violence against women shows that he is an honorable man. No doubt you have heard the following: "It's contemptible to hit a woman." Woman are weak beings who cannot defend themselves like a man can. You shouldn't hit them even if you feel the urge to. Oh you're so chivalrous, here's a man who know how to treat women!

But it is a telling fact that I said nothing to what the man said. Nobody did.

Questions about machismo violence are still very hard to deal with in a Finnish context. There are petty explanations, excuses and a whole load of sentimentality. (In an article in a local newspaper a researcher recommended that boys should find new masculinities. I'm not sure what that means.)

7 October 2008

Good and evil, an absolute conception: Twin Peaks ontology

In Twin Peaks, even leaves rustling in the wind evoke fear. I'm sure you remember the scene in which Laura Palmer's funeral has gathered the town folk. The scene starts, I think, with the rustling leaves. We see it for a good while, and there is the sound, too. Silence. The feeling I get is that something really bad is happening here. It's not clear what this fear is about, or whether it's about anything at all. It is not necessarily the fear of something "behind" the trees that disconcerts me. I am not necessarily anticipating some terrifying beings hiding in the woods. The deserted traffic lights have the same effect on me. Unsettling, but not in the sense that I could pin down any element in the image that has this specific frightening effect on me. Nature, and human artefacts as well (the rubbled train wagon), are emedded within a feeling of being surrounded by something evil, a feeling of being seen. The elusive owl that is BOB. Watching Twin Peaks for the first time, I remember that it was this indeterminacy that intrigued me about the world of Twin Peaks. Evil takes on many shapes and forms and the relation between these different images is never settled.

BOB is the incarnation of evil in Twin Peaks. One of the first things we see of him in the series is his sudden entrance in Sarah's vision. Our fear meshes with that of Sarah. I'm not sure if I know what BOB is. BOB's face is always contorted, as in a state of gruesome ecstacy. Grinning, screaming, gripping on to something. M suggested that his face expresses some crazy form of joy. That is interesting. Does the demeanour of BOB convey lust? What would it mean to say that it does? I'm not sure what kind of concept 'lust' is, what form of attitude we take to something when we perceive something as 'lust'. BOB is the lust for destruction, the lust for nothing in particular, the lust of consumption (in the sense of people consuming each other like food). BOB consumes his host body and his victim. BOB embodies a certain image of male sexuality as a blind, unstoppable, destructive force of nature that possesses a man in the form of an evil spirit and transforms him into unrecognizability. BOB is nourished by killing, BOB feeds on the familiar body and does with it what he wants. His single drive is to induce suffering and pain. My associations drift towards Freud's concept of 'thanatos'.

The evil as a mystic force is perhaps the most common picture in films depicting the staggering, entranced psycho killer roaming the streets for prey - the prey is usually a girl, usually with some specific characteristics fetischized by the killer (H suggested something to the effect of evil being a form of fetishism, I am ready to agree with that to some extent). Twin Peaks explores this theme, too. Even though BOB has much in common with the other-worldliness of the killer in mainstream horror movies, Twin Peaks develops this theme and in this I find something interesting.

BOB is a reality of its own. Twin peaks does not really make clear its nature. The residue of The Black lodge comes across like a form of perpetual restlessness; the non-space in which every room resembles each other. BOB is glimpses of fear breaking into the common world of goodness and relations. In the last episode of season one, when the murder is resolved and Leland has committed suicide, Coop, Albert and Sheriff Truman engages in a discussion about BOB. BOB is, they seem to agree, "the evil that men do".

BOB is a manifestation of the thought that evil is, in some sense, not a part of ourselves, but that it preys on us, eats our soul, possesses us. For that reason, I was always a bit perplexed by the attempt to explain Leland's transformation by his encounter with the "real" Bob. The ontology of Twin Peaks displays some manichean tendencies: the good and the bad are two separable entities, two modes of reality, existing, as it were, on a par as two forces. What is so scary about BOB is that he is not motivated by anything. He is, in a way, "abstract". He is simply driven. BOB's consummation of his victims could be said to be a very straightforward picture of the theory of lack as developed in psychoanalytic theory: a form of eternal incompleteness that has to take possession of something; both an object and, if you will, a host body (I would say that the movement goes like this, others might disagree). BOB's strange ecstacy/trance is captured in his dance. A most striking scene is the one in which Leland/BOB dances alone, holding the picture of Laura in his hand. His face expresses grief and some sort of crazed movement at the same time. In this scene, BOB's desire is expressed in Leland's empty arms. It is unclear at what BOB's desire is directed at, his persona signals a mere "dance of destruction".

Twin Peaks is, from beginning to end, a story about sexual violence. In Twin Peaks, violence moves on different levels and is manifested in different forms. Violence takes place within the setting of cherry pies, black coffee and delicious donuts, but also in sleazy bars and in the dark woods, not to talk about the within the walls of the "happy home". Violence crops up everywhere and it is always sudden and gruesome.

The BOB character is a force that corrupts its victim, who is possessed with something that has nothing to do with himself. But what is creepy about Twin Peaks and its "ontological constallation" is that it is the victims perpetrated and molested by BOB that are somehow blamed from attracting the sexual energies of BOB. Laura, it somehow seems, victimizes herself by leading a "voluptious" or "lustful" life. Most men seem to respond to her in much the same manner as BOB: Leo, the Renault brothers, Mr. Horne. Every male (even Coop, it sometimes seems) desires her and that desire comes out as obsessive, dark and violent. Laura worked at One Eyed Jack's. She "attracts men" and enjoyed various intoxicating substances. One Eyed Jack's is a place where men fulfill their sexual fantasies and let loose their sexual drive. From this point of view, the sexual violence of BOB is not essentially different from that of other men. Everyone, in various degrees, in Twin Peaks, is possessed by some strange force. Some internet writers have interpreted BOB as the state of original sin. That makes sense as a reading of the series in some ways, some of which I have talked about here (the predicament of the world is its inherent evil, from which final redemption is impossible - another version of The Black Lodge).

The "good girl" always seems on the verge of being transformed into "a bad girl". I am not sure whether Twin Peaks repeats the patriarchal, grotesque naturalization of sexual violence - existing in men as a potentiality (the most extreme form of which is being possessed by BOB) and existing in women as a longing for victimization. Audrey, for example, is clearly fascinated by the murder in other ways than grieving a friend. Her desire to gain entrance to One Eyed Jack's is very ambivalent. One dimension of it is her challenge of her father's authority, but it is not the only one. ("The world of men" is not only the world of Mr Horne and his colleagues - a world in which women have gained entrance partly as sexual figures - but also the world of the Bookhouse boys, an image of "safe&sound masculinity" - or not.) But despite this, I would hesitate to say that the women in Twin Peaks are mere objects. They are subjects fighting in a world where they are turned into objects and in which violence is a ubiquitous threat.

The transformation Leland/BOB is one strand of season 1, but there are other transformations too that are marked by "movement of desire": Donna-the-good-student/Donna coming out as a "foxy lady", Nadine-the-failed-hausfrau/Nadine-the-reborn-teenager and, of course, Madeleine/Laura. If you look into in what precise way women are sexualized in Twin Peaks, I'm sure you will notice some interesting patterns.

The (perhaps only) man falling outside the scheme of "potential rapist", Big Ed, is presented as being controlled by his crazy wife Nadine. "Those drapes, Ed!" Ed is solid and good, there is no hint of violence (in the sexual sense) in him. Ed might be the only person who is not possessed by some dark desire. Everything he does seems direct, honest and open.

I definitively find sexual violence being depicted ambiguously in Twin Peaks. There is a clear sense in which the world of Twin Peaks (in just the same way as the world of Blue Velvet) is awaiting disruption. This is not saying that Twin Peaks is also about friendship and goodness. But the ambiguity is there. As it turns out, even Cooper, a gentlemanly, generally chaste character, is, by means of his desire for Annie, a proper object for BOB, who possesses him in the last episode. Is the logic of Twin Peaks that men's desire for women turn them into monsters? That could be interpreted as both a disturbing enchantment with regard to heterosexist ideology and the unravelling of a dimension of that same ideology.

Persepolis (2007)

If you haven't seen Persepolis (2007) yet, do it now! The animations are fun, and highly evocative. The story, the coming-of-age of a young Iranian girl who grows up in Iran and Wien, is political in the sense that it depicts oppression, political violence and loss of home. In short, Iranian history from the seventies onwards is captured. Here, "political" does not imply a lack of a personal dimension. Rather, the film takes you as far as you can get from a dry recapitulation of facts and political structures. I have had my doubts about film adaptations of comic books, but this movie truly convinced me that such projects are sometimes beautifully implemented. This is in fact one of the most symphathetic autobiographies I've ever seen: no trace of sentimentality or self-gratifying elevation of a Story. Perspepolis tells its story with impressionistic pictures and scenes, the result being neither confusing or shallow. I would rather say that the film conveys a sense of truth and humbleness; a story that I cared about as soon as the film started. It's also one of the funnies movies I've seen in a while. The pictures, the way they were drawn, express humour and a gentle irony that manages to keep things subtle and also sometimes complex. I found the sense of humour quite original. Mundane things like Bruce Lee and Iron Maiden were converted into something completely different. Terrible things like war were depicted in a humane way, disclosing both the horrible and the ridiculousness of it all. I wish there were more films like this one.

5 October 2008

Gösta goes Helsinki

There is a reason why Gösta does not always feel at home in Helsinki. This is the reason. He lived in Grankulla for a year, among ladies wearing furs and gentlemen with their walking sticks and cylinder hats. Grankulla was not a fun place, but the town, being the home of the capitalists of Finland, could afford a good library. Helsinki was a tad better. Gösta used to go to the movies. There were movie theatres back then. Many of them have closed down by now, swallowed by the big conglomerates. Gösta led the ascetic life. He read books. The only person he talked to was his room mate. The room mate told him stories about her home town. She told him about crazy people, people with tractor habits, communists, people living in half-built houses. They talked to each other sitting in adjacent rooms. They were too lazy to walk five meters to sit beside each other. It was almost like talking on the phone. Sometimes, Gösta misses these conversations.

"Management events". If business got its way, there would be no other events.

Helsinki is a white box. Gösta does not know what is in that box. That is also the point. He should not know. Industry is the secrets of the container.

They are building stuff in the ports. Gösta sees cranes everywhere.

This skyline depresses Gösta. Houses that look the same.

Gösta told his sister about a dream he had. He was standing by the sea. In Helsinki. He was looking at a coal powerplant. There was a great heap of coal by the powerplant. His sister told him that this might not have been a dream. Gösta does not know. They drive to the place. There is no heap of coal. Gösta feels crazy for not knowing.

There is this expression among some of Gösta's colleagues. "You should weld the shit out of that idea..." Gösta has spent a week with Wittgenstein's welders. Some ways of speaking take on a new meaning. "People don't talk like that!!!!!" (murmured in a tortured voice, a way of paraphrazing a misunderstanding of what Wittgenstein is about) "But do you know???" (murmured in a tortured voice, a paraphrase of the bewitchment of 'Know' in the realm of traditional analytic philosophy). Gösta looks at the rolling eyes of his friends. Their grunts. Their small gestures. The exasperated tone of voice. Gösta & O agree that it is silly to treat Wittgenstein as a shrine, to pay one's allegiance, to offer one's witness of the Spirit (the method). Gösta thinks 'method' is very uninteresting. Gösta gets angry. Gösta wonder what Wittgenstein would think about people who worship his Word and who quotes his texts in the spirit of religous revelation. Wittgenstein got angry about anything. He would break a window, throw chairs. Gösta desires to weld the shit out of that attitude of philosophical purity. Gösta has not the witness within himself. He is glad about not having it.

1 October 2008

On philosophy and intuitions: mountains and chickens

I've suddenly come to notice how much philosophical ink has been dedicated to the term "intuition" in recent years. Being almost as innocent as Baby Jesus, I have been convinced that "intuitions" was something pretty much trashed by Wittgenstein during the course of a couple of paragraphs of Philosophical Investigations (I'm thinking §§ 213-4, of course). According to Wittgenstein, 'intuition' is a pseudo-explanation that in no way helps us to understand what we think we can explain by invoking this term. Now it seems as if 'intuitions' are all over the place; epistemology, metaphysics and moral philosophy. There are even some battles going on about the role of intuitions in philosophical analyses (I will come to that). I've read some passages about this that makes me wonder how some writers view the task of philosophy and, what is more, how they perceive their own role in doing philosophical work. The passages I have in mind depict intuitions in two very different ways, but what is interesting is that they share a view of philosophy and language. I will try to say something about this.

"[Some] revisionary metaphysicians deny that there are mountains. They deny the proposition of the sort that G.E. Moore defended in his defence of common sense. They concede that microscopic particles exhibit collective behaviour in the presence of which it is used to believe that a mountain is present, but they classify that belief as false. They hold that although the ordinary use of the word 'mountain' has some utility, because it registers genuine discriminations between different sorts of situation in which different action are appropriate, it also embodies a mistaken metaphysical theory as to what the difference between those sorts of situation consists in. The claim that there are no mountains is usually regarded as counterintuitive. Even its proponents may conclude that it is counterintuitive, but argue that the cost to intuition is worth paying for the overall gain in simplicity, strenght, logical coherence and consonance with the results of the natural sciences that they attribute to their total metaphysical system, of which the claim is a consequence."

This picture of what philosophy should occupy itself with, "the foundation of our ability to know things about the world", seems to have a relation to Hilary Putnam's just as silly thought experiment in which he explains how meaning of concepts has to do with the external world. The idea that philosophy should come up with a final verdict on our ability to know and to give a final characterization of the relation between language and reality seems to be a prevailing one, even though it has also been challenged (by people like Wittgenstein, but I suspect most analytic philosophers would consider him a passed staged in the history of philosophy. Wrongly, I would say.). The philosophical picture referred to in the quote makes our normal talk about mountains seem like a very vague, fuzzy thing to be judged by philosophy, passing verdicts on the status of our "intuitions". Timothy Williamson points out that many philosophers would concede that our "intuitions" (= in this case, how we normally talk about mountains) cannot be assumed to be reliable. I agree with him that scepticism and scientism, in this respect, make up a joint venture.

"The cost to intuition is worth paying for the overall gain in simplicity." In this view, everything we say we know expresses an "intuition". To be sure, there are many philosophers who would not quite agree with the idea that our talk about 'mountains' constitutes a case of false belief. But - I'm sure plenty of contemporary philosophers in the analytic tradition consider the things we say about knowing stuff about the world to be theoretical convictions the scientific transformation of which can only count as a sound continuation of what these "intuitions" were about from the start: TRUTH and KNOWLEDGE in their most abstract, no-content sense. The folksy talk about mountains, actions and human beings, the same line of thought goes, could be exchanged with much more stringent scientific talk without any essential change taking place in terms of subject matter.

From this point of view, philosophical points about "the way we talk", "having something to say", "what we say makes a difference" can only appear as charming, however unreliable, chit-chat to be corrected or supplemented by much more serious metaphysical investigations about the conditions of knowledge and truth. These conditions might, somehow, be expressed in "ordinary language", many would argue. But it is still, for them, an open question in what sense our "intuition" that we "know" that there are "mountains" in Schweiz says anything about what it is to "know". Philosophy should prove that the concept of 'mountain' has a relation to reality.

Up till now I have not said a word about the experiment in which experimental philosophers (which is an up-and-coming philosophical discipline) were asking people of various class background about the extent to which they found the action of fucking a dead chicken morally repulsive. Interestly, upper class people were reported to find it less shocking.

"A man goes to the supermarket once a week and buys a dead chicken. But before cooking the chicken, he has sexual intercourse with it. Then he cooks it and eats it." (Haidt et al. 1993: 617)

"Harmless yet offensive violations of strong social norms." as Standford encyclopedia of philosophy has it. I kid you not. Well, the authors claim to have said something about the reason why philosophy cannot rely on (their own) intuitions as evidence because of the huge variations among our intuitions. The question seems to some extent to be about what philosophical accounts are based on.

The experiment was thus thought to elicit the subjects' moral intuitions, whatever that is supposed to mean. It was thought to provide an example of an interesting variety that challenges some ideas about philosophy. But everything about this example seems crazy. What would you say about the case in question? Do you have a 'moral intuition' about it? "Let me think about this for a while... Well... There's a pro and con to everything, you know..." I don't know, just to come up with this "case" is so gross that I don't know how to express my exasperation without my brain pouring out onto the floor. And still this is taken seriously as an interesting and illuminating contribution to moral philosophy in its quest of elaborating the distinction between arbitrary cultural norms and a sound & firm, neutral foundation of moral theory!

I agree with one of my colleagues who said that there are some forms of philosophy that one cannot help seeing as expressions of male self-contempt; a wiping out of responsibility, of a personal voice, of a desire to say something. "I have nothing to say, I simply want to talk about reality, about truth, about truth-conditions. It does not matter the slightest what I say." The concept of intuitions pops up as a convenient point of departure. In that case, of course, it is all right to discuss "moral disgust" and "copulating with dead chickens" in much the same way as one would discuss prime numbers and the mechanisms of a vacuum cleaner, weren't it for the axis of "condone & condemn" but that has little to do with morality as well. These guys make detachment seem like a virtue. From this point of view, the philosopher is not a person; the philosopher should not be a person. The philosopher should be a thinking computer, a mechanic arm that gropes out into the darkness of metaphysics. In short, philosophers have transformed our personal relation to the world to stuff like qualia and intuitions.

Valerie Solanas gets it right when she says:

"Being empty, he looks outward, not only for guidance and control, but for salvation and for the meaning of life."

Outward, as in, "our moral intuitions differ...", "what people of different class backgrounds would say about copulating with dead chickens". Solanas talks about the inward-looking philosopher who poses the emptiness he finds within himself (an emptiness she has a lot to say about, read the manifesto!) as the Human condition and, voilá!, philosophy has nothing to do with you, it has started to become a completely impersonal affair, musings about problems that concern nobody in particular. It does not matter whether the philosopher gazes inwards or whether he directs his attentions outwards provided that the attitude of self-annihilation and contempt is the same. Someone, Mary Midgley, I think, once wrote that we should address many philosophical ideas with the question: what are you afraid of?' - I couldn't agree more. I find the attitude Solanas is pointing at in myself.

The common dimension of the chicken example and the mountain example is not only that they both build on a conception about intuitions, "what we would be inclined to say". The common denominator here is, I think, a certain disengaged relation to what we say and how we react. It is important here that nobody in particular is talking, and that there is no situation in particular that is being discussed. When we - nobody in particular - talk about mountains - in no particular situation - we seem to be in the business of expressing our convictions about some form of epistemological structure that can be evaluated and criticized by philosophy. When we react to moral questions - I can't find the strenght in me to repeat that horrid example - from the point of view of "intuitions" those reactions are easily reducible to "cultural contingencies". (There are different uses of "intuition" cropping up here, I know that)

Solanas says it best: philosophy has become a nice tool for propping up the feeling of meaninglessness with "the human condition", "essences" and what have you. I'm not saying that all philosophical problems will disappear in a whiff by saying this, but maybe you and I will recognize something, gain sight of something, by acknowledging it?

If you are interested in experimental philosophy you may start with this page along with this article. The idea of experimental philosophy - "get up from that arm-chair!" - seems quite interesting and at first glance it appears quite sympathetic, but I am slightly sceptical nonetheless. "Experimental philosophy" seems to presuppose that there could be empirical answers, perhaps statistics provided by opinion polling, that could resolve the problems of knowledge, truth and morality as these questions have been traditionally stated in philosophical discussion. "If philosophers want to demonstrate that their arguments comport with how the mind really works, say the proponents of experimental philosophy, they need to get off their duffs." At least some experimental philosophers write as if they want to supplement traditional philosophical views on 'reference' or 'intentions' by looking at these 'philosophically problematic concepts' from the point of view of what is called "folk concepts". The focus of attention is hereby switched from "a priori intuitions of philosophers" (considered insufficient for philosophical analysis) to "intuitions of non-philosophers".

I would say to this that these presuppositions need to be evaluated - the idea that philosophy revolves around some inherently problematic concepts that we need to work out a complete account of (as if knowledge and intentions were a specific thing, the structure of which could be disclosed in careful & meticulous philosophical drudgery). Opinion polls will only worsen the situation, however much they bear the promise of clarity, empirical findings and rigour. Empirical methods will not solve conceptual confusion. But of course I want to admit that there might be some work that has been done in this field that has some merits. I know too little to say. Some of the driving force behind experimental philosophy seems to be that philosophy should be connected to the ways we, not just philosophers, actually think. That is, somehow, OK, but I'm afraid that we are talking about very different notions about the role of illuminating "how we think". In this post I was trying to show this. But it'll be interesting to see the development of this philosophical movement. Is it only a trend, or is it here to stay?