These extracted pearls of wisdom from American philosopher Daniel Dennett are mostly about how to engage fruitfully in argument:
His second point (respect your opponent) is allied to his sixth: don’t waste time on rubbish. Twisting an argument into a corner (Dennett doesn’t use the tired expression “straw man”) is too easy to be worthwhile. Instead, give a fair and charitable summary, “list any points of agreement, especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement”, and only then disagree. Such handling reflects how learned debate is supposed to work: whatever consensus there may be stands on the shoulders of past proofs and refutations (Lakatos). The Republic of Letters is a forum, an agora, a community, with no rightful place for a demagogue. As in literature, even the most original voice is in dialogue with tradition.
A splendid example of Dennett’s rhetorical talents may be seen in his rebuttal in a letter to the LRB of a somewhat uncivil attack by Jerry Fodor, though Dennett is here not quite as even-handed as his ideal dictates.
A year or so ago a little evangelical church set up shop in the house on the corner. The amplified music and preaching has gradually got louder, and one Sunday a couple of weeks ago I complained. The preacher was all smiles in front of his congregation and undertook to reduce the volume. Yesterday he came out and accosted me as I was passing and the atmosphere was not so cordial. When I said it was illegal to operate a church in a residential building, he threatened to report me to the police because he didn’t like my tone, and sent two men to follow me and find out where I lived. It is unfortunately common in ths country for people to involve the police in minor altercations, and the important thing is who can produce supportive witnesses, not what actually happened. In every walk of life, the law is the tool of the most cynical, to be knowingly flouted as far as you can get away with, and hypocritically appealed to whenever it offers advantage. The proprietor of a construction company recently said in the context of a controversial project that he had “zero fear” of the law, which meant no more than the bother of hiring a good lawyer. The same company recently won its case over a project illegal under changed regulations on the grounds that they had not been informed of the need to reapply for the building licence — because the document informing them was technically incorrect. Such sharp practices must be common the world over, but there is generally a public institutional counterweight. Here there is a vacuum, and the evangelical movement are as keen as any other business to fill it. That might mean that in a few years, apart from the fact there is no-one to enforce such laws, it will no longer be illegal for churches to amplify the gospel as much as they like. The reactionary consequences of the erosion of the separation of church and state can be seen in several African countries today, particularly in the form of homophobic legislation, including the death penalty. The theocratic ideal is encapsulated in a discussion I had several years ago with a man playing loud music from a portable CD shop, which he was wheeling round the Casa Forte vegetable market. Several people complained, but the police (present in the square) took no action. He explained to me that though he understood both the legal objection and the inconvenience the law was meant to prevent, his “commitment to faith was greater”.
There are thousands of such churches, many of them no doubt law-abiding and pacific. The ones that aren’t have a political logic — and impact — opposed to secular society and democracy. Perhaps they should read Luther on the two keys (or two kingdoms).
Ken Kalfus’s short story (recommended by Electric Literature) is here:
I hope to read more by this author. Reading the story, I was convinced he was a Russian — but actually he’s an American who (crucially) spent time in the country. He must have read a fair amount of Russian SF too: a satirical genre if there ever was. And then there’s Tarkovsky’s films … Stalker … Solaris …
Fortune is a unix application that pops up on boot with a quotation or joke. Apparently Wernher von Braun, the rocket scientist, said that “Research is what I’m doing when I don’t know what I’m doing.”
The element of play is central to the creative act. To make anything new — even though it will of necessity be out of old stuff that happens to be lying around — something must arise unexpectedly. That is why the bureaucratisation of academia will mean intellectual life needs a new home. The absurd game of the funding application requires foreknowledge of results, their applications and relevance, and most bizarrely of all, the path taken to get there. Many higher education institutions require doctoral students to produce a “chronogram” for their entire project at the outset, and enforce compliance with it; that’s a step beyond the research proposal, which used to be recognised on all sides as a polite fiction, at most a point of departure.
Never mind that though. The wider point derives (at least its most recent seminal instance) from Schiller’s Aesthetische Erziehung, or as expressed more practically in the notion of negative capability. The fashionable term would be “flow”, but that leaves out the open horizon of the masterless imagination.
Need it be said that none of it is possible without hard work and a spongeful of knowledge? “C’t avec du vieux qu’on fait du neuf.” (Jacques Brel)
Writers of so-called serious fiction shared one dominant characteristic—their fiction was first and foremost about themselves. The ‘self’ lay at the heart of modernism, but now had a powerful rival, the everyday world, which was just as much a psychological construct, and just as prone to mysterious and often psychopathic impulses.
Is this quote from Ballard’s autobiography (which I found in a review of it here) anything more than an appeal to return to realism? To be sure, it would be a psychotic realism, to fit the times: the self fragmentary, collapsed, elided. What Lukács termed bourgeois realism, for all the breadth of its world-historical perspective (with characters, rather than the generalised “self”, at the centre) indeed seems inadequate to our bizarre day-to-day. Genre fiction’s looseness relative to high realism, by letting it off the hook of offering a coherent vision of this labyrinth, may allow room for the unconscious to reveal itself and in that way be a truer reflection of whatever is out there. It is also a licence for self-indulgence and escapism. But its formulaic elements (detectives, spaceships …) aren’t a deficiency; these just allow the author to get on with his real business instead of trying to be Tolstoy. In a few cases, as with Ballard, they may simply be elided. Viewing the world as a “psychological construct” is as radical as that idea once seemed when applied to the self, and in retrospect, just as compelling. At bottom self and world are two perspectives on their intersection.
To put it quite differently, maybe genre fiction is a way of writing about the present, whereas realism’s true object is a past recent enough to be remembered (to have formed the author) but now distant enough to be understood as a period. The difference in feel is hard to sense once the author’s time of writing has receded into our own past, in which perspective it may look similar to narrated time. The higher calling of genre fiction — its “genre” in the classical sense — would then be satire: time and place are transposed not just for the benefit of the censor, but to purify the narrative of any preachy or merely documentary aspect and let imagination free.
With thanks to all who helped! Note: UK adapter, HDMI to VGA converter, Pi sticker, hub, wireless (inserted in Pi's lower USB socket) and above all, lots and lots of wires. It would be good to put them inside an elegant perspex case with a few flashing LEDs for effect. On the screen, the left-hand frame is this blog, with charm running on the right.
As some readers of this blog may know, the Raspberry Pi is a very small, very cheap computer — commonly referred to as “credit-card sized”, but a cigarette packet would make a closer analogy for its proportions. Indeed, an empty cigarette packet could probably be made into a case for the Pi in two or three minutes with a stanley knife. The conception descends from the BBC Micro and aims to recapture the spirit of kids messing about with integrated circuits to learn computing with their hands — and possibly a soldering iron.
It is thus with satisfaction and pride that I make this blog post using my Pi. It might appear off-topic, but for instance, Francis Bacon would surely have loved the idea.
Mine is one of the earlier batch with just 256 MB RAM (the BBC Micro had 32 K or 64 K, and a tape recorder). All those trailing wires were too tempting for words to one of my cats (yes, Leãozinho, I have eyes in the back of my head) so the ethernet port no longer functions. A replacement USB hub arrived today so Pi is back on line with low-power wireless. The range of software available for Pi running Raspbian, the official Debian ARM OS, is impressive, and I have sought out lightweight applications: XMonad as window manager, st and surf (from suckless) as terminal and browser, Pyroom for writing (charm, my blogging client, is configured to use it), pine for email, MPlayer for music. I might have had to build one or two of those from source, but no more than that. I believe omxplayer can be used in the framebuffer console (therefore without the overhead of X) to watch video. The Pi comes set up as a learning environment for python.
What more could you wish for?