149.97 ZIZ In Defense of Lost Causes

I had a doctor’s appointment while I was reading this and my doctor asked me what the lost causes were that were being defended. I had to admit I didn’t know. Having finished the book, I have a somewhat better sense of what Žižek means with his title. The lost causes he refers to are all manner of ultimately failed revolutions, the October Revolution in Russia, Leninism, Stalinism, Maoism, even Heidegger’s association with Naziism.

Žižek is working in this book to create a reinterpretation of Marxism calling back to Hegel and bringing in concepts from Freud and Lacan. The book is an eclectic mix of cultural criticism, history and philosophy as part of Žižek’s effort to come up with an authentic Marxism for the twenty-first century. In particular, Žižek sees revolution and failure as essential elements of Marxism and not mere incidentals. A revolution, paradoxically, has to fail in order to succeed in Žižek’s view because there can be no end of history and the dialectic must continue.

Of particular note to me were the sections on Stalin. I’ve wanted to write something for a while from the perspective of a true believer in Stalin and this gives me some of the material that I’ve desperately needed.

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133.1 SEL Your Neighborhood Gives Me the Creeps

The first three decades of philosophy are each two or three shelves. Then we get to the 130s, the paranormal. This is extends across three bookcases. Clearly a very different set of priorities among the book-borrowing public here.

As a child, I loved this section of the library and I devoured books on ESP and palm reading and ghosts and anything else I found in this section. Now I find myself viewing all of this with a great deal of skepticism, perhaps because I was never able to learn anything useful from my palm or read anyone’s mind or move boxes with my thoughts or encounter dead people in the dark corners of the cemetery. 

Selzer approaches the subject with similar skepticism albeit one tempered with a bit more openness to the supernatural than others. In one case his science is laughably wrong where he speculates that an invisible presence might be invisible because it’s composed of light outside the range visible to the human eye, ignoring the fact that nothing is composed of light to begin with, and an object which only reflected, say, UV light, would appear black to the human eye, not invisible.

But having raised these objections, Selzer writes engagingly in this book which is a combination of memoir and stories about alleged hauntings in the Chicago area. He’s quick to point out the obvious things which can be explained while also (perhaps too enthusiastically) pointing out those things he could not explain.

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121.6 WOL Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast

I’ve found myself skeptical of the whole field of evolutionary psychology. There might someday be a scientific basis for evolutionary psychology, but right now it has all the scientific sophistication of mythology and, from a structural standpoint, that is precisely what it is, an attempt to formulate a narrative to support an existing reality. 

Given this, it’s somewhat ironic that Lewis Wolpert’s attempt to understand belief from a scientific perspective tends to depend heavily on evolutionary psychology. He attempts to make the case (and, I think, fails) that belief has its origins in toolmaking and some of his ventures into comparative psychology fail to acknowledge a great deal of more recent study that indicates that toolmaking and concept of self may be more prevalent in non-humans than previously believed.

I’m not quite certain about Wolpert’s claim that scientific thought originated in, and only in, ancient Greece, attributing any technological advances in other cultures to trial and error rather than scientific processes. Frankly, I’m not sufficiently educated in non-European history to judge his claim; I do suspect, however, that the same applies to Wolpert as well.

To Wolpert’s credit he does lay out his biases early on, although he is sometimes blind to the boundaries of his biases. In particular, while he dismisses (correctly, I believe) psychoanalytic theory, he seems unaware to the extent to which the same has been incorporated into his own worldview and quite cheerfully applies a psychoanalytic explanation to aspects of human behavior.

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110 VOS What Number is God?

I had high hopes for this book. The premise is a good one: applying the ideas of metamathematics to philosophy and religion in a hopes of providing a new framework for considering these ideas. Sarah Voss’s project is, in effect, one of attempting to conceive a new metaphysics on a mathematical basis.

Unfortunately, it seems that not only does Voss not succeed in her effort, but she manages to fall into some of the traps that modern mathematical thought is meant to avoid, particularly, in one case near the end of the book, conceiving of her metaphysics as a set which contains itself. Bertrand Russell was the first to identify the problem with this in his definition of “perfect sets”: A perfect set is a set which does not contain itself. In this instance, we’re left with the question of whether P the set of all perfect sets is itself a perfect set. If it is a perfect set, it does not contain itself, but since P contains all perfect sets, it must contain itself and cannot be perfect. If P is not a perfect set, then it contains itself, but P is defined as the set of all perfect sets and thus is perfect.

It was just this sort of difficulty that led to Gödel’s examination of metamathematics and his famous incompleteness theorem, in short a set of mathematical symbols (with symbols defined broadly enough to allow all mathematical proofs to be expressed with these symbols) cannot prove all statements about those symbols, in short there are mathematical statements which cannot be proven false or true within the system of mathematical statements (it does not, however, provide any means of determining whether a mathematical statement is, in fact, among those unprovable statements, meaning that the efforts at proving such theorem’s as the Riemann Hypothesis could quite possibly be attempting to prove the unprovable).

Voss occasionally comes frustratingly close to seeing how this sort of metamathematical thought could be applied to philosophy or religion, but sadly she doesn’t seem to have sufficient mathematical sophistication herself to actually complete her project. 

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100 PHI Socrates Café

I took a single philosophy course over the entirety of my education: It was a basic 101 class and the only reading that I recall were The Republic by Plato and Meditations on First Philosophy by René Descartes. The latter has left a nagging hole in my conception of the universe that continues to linger. I was fine with the whole process of tearing down step by step what we can’t know, but I felt (and still feel), that the leap from knowing nothing to knowing that there is an actual existence was not convincingly argued.

Still, my education (both formal and informal) has touched on the philosophical along the way and coming at this book was a way to greatly refresh the idea of philosophy to me. Phillips views the philosophical project as being essentially Socratic in nature, always being willing to question any assumption that we make. This can, like in the case of Descartes, leave us with nothing if we keep digging in the same direction for too long, but in the situations that Phillips describes, where he describes discussions taking place mostly in coffee shops and elementary schools, can illuminate the questions in helpful ways.

I did spend a lot of time wondering how Phillips was able to do things like pay rent and buy food given that he does these events for free. At one point in talking about “ivory-tower philosophers” he seemed as if he was going to address this question, but instead ducked it entirely, taking the easy way out. I still wonder about how he supports himself.

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Beautiful sentences

Jack glanced up at her blandly, not quite smiling, touching his fingertips together as if there were no such thing in the world as a hint.

Marilynne Robinson, Home.

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Beautiful sentences

I didn’t want to go home. My wife was different than she used to be, and we had a six-month-old baby I was afraid of, a little son.

Denis Johnson, Jesus’ Son

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Beautiful sentences

When the pie was done and the roast was in the oven and the biscuits were made and set aside and the old man had nodded off in the warmth of the kitchen, Jack went upstairs and Glory sat down to read for a while.

Marilynne Robinson, Home

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098.3 KAT Literary Hoaxes: An Eye Opening History of Famous Frauds

This seems like it should be a fascinating area to write about: From the fabricated Shakespeare documents that took in Charles and Mary Lamb in the 19th century to James Frey’s “memoir” in the twenty-first century, there’s a lot to write about. As it turns out, though, most of the stories aren’t that interesting. JT Leroy’s story is interesting to read, but despite his fame, James Frey turns out to be not that interesting. Clifford Irving’s Howard Hughes memoir hoax was another interesting story, although better told by Irving himself in The Hoax, later made into a film with Richard Gere. Overall, the book could have been better executed had Katsoulis been more selective in what she chose to include.

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081 REQ Requiem for a Paper Bag: Celebrities and Civilians Tell Stories of the Best Lost, Tossed and Found Items from around the World

Found magazine is one of those concepts that I wish I’d come up with: publishing the strange and unusual artifacts that end up as the detritus of civilized life. In this case, Rothbart, the editor of Found canvassed assorted celebrities and civilians (as near as I can tell, this designation is for those people who are well-known writers who don’t quite rise to celebrity status) for their best stories of found objects. In a few cases, the responses are fiction (or even poetry). In a couple instances, one piece responds directly to another which left me wondering how exactly the compilation process worked, particularly with those responses (did the authors of those pieces say, “what else have you got? I’m stumped”). 

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