Monday, October 27, 2008

An Honest Preface

The great literary critic and fellow blogger M. P. Johnsen once wrote a brilliant post about wimpy academic prefaces in "Preface Par Excellence," on his blog Causerie. In the post he derides the standard preface as follows:

The preface of nearly every "academic" work I've read in college and grad school contains some form of disclaimer. The author goes about thanking everyone who helped in the writing and research of the book and concludes by saying that any faults or errors in the book are attributable exclusively to the author. The disclaimer is a gesture of humility on the one hand, a way of saying that the brilliance of the text was the product of many but the faults [of] the product of one. But on the other it's an empty formality. Empty because it appears in every book without fail & because books of that sort have been read and proofread so often that there should be no errors at all. It's not very encouraging, after all, if someone begins a persuasive argument by saying, "Here's what I think. . . . if I'm wrong it's my own fault." Just think of the legal nightmares if litigators began their cases that way.

M. P. compares this standard, wimpy, preface with those written by the mustached German philosopher Nietzsche, who basically tells his audiance that if they don't understand his book it's because the reader didn't read it thoroughly enough, i.e. "ruminate" upon it, or, the reader failed to read and comprehend all of Nietzsche's previous works. Nietzsche wasn't about kissing babies and keeping friends; he was about vomitting truth and letting the reader sift through the spill.

I like M. P.'s arguement because it cuts through the mutual academic hand shaking that doesn't extend to the reader. I also like Nietzsche's approach to preface writing because he makes no appologies about his work and makes the reader stupidly guilty of any errors.

With that background, I recently read a preface that takes a little of both approaches. In Randolh B. Campbell's Gone to Texas: A History of the Lone Star State, he writes the standard "thank you to all my colleauges..." preface but throws in a barb at the end, writing:

Finally, as is customary after acknowledging the help of others, I must admit that reamaining weaknesses and errors of omission or commission are my own fault. Why one of my friends did not catch them will always remain a mystery. (Just joking, guys.)

I wish Campbell would've omitted that last little "Just joking, guys," because I don't think he was joking. At least he shouldn't have been joking. I know the help of friends can't turn one's burlap manuscript into silk, but they should at least be able to blend it's patches.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Weezer, the Shout inside Your Head: or, Why Weezer Rocks!

I came to Weezer a little late for a man my age. I remember hearing all my junior high classmates raving about them and their first hit video "Buddy Holly," but I didn't care; Weezer was just an act back then.

About a year ago I fell in love with "Pinkerton," Weezer's second and greatest album. (pictured left) Every song on the album rocks so hard. The guitars are rough and the lyrics are simple on the surface and addictively catchy. Songs like "Tired of Sex," and "The Good Life" complement each other nicely; the former bemoans a full life of empty sex; the latter wonders when and how old age sat in.

Though all the songs on "Pinkerton" seriously rock, it's "El Scorcho" that takes the prize. Combining a resounding chant that loops in your head for hours with smashing drums and edgy guitars, the song speaks from the heart, and, most importantly, shouts out loud what every guy on Earth has thought to himself upon seeing his dream girl(s). And that's the amazing power of Weezer's songs quintessentially displayed in "El Scorcho:" the power to crystallize and shout out loud the things we fantasize about, the lines we wish could say to someone, and the feelings that we wrestle with when sleep won't come.

The chorus to "El Scorcho" is simple enough: "I'm a lot like you so please, hello, I'm here, I'm waiting. I think I'd be good for you, and you'd be good for me." Everyone who's ever had a crush on someone has thought those very words. The chorus speaks loudly and the song hammers home the point at 2:13 with: "How stupid is it, for all I know you want me to, but maybe you just don't know what to do, and maybe you're scared to say 'I'm fallin' for you'." I still think these things; these words make-up a universal daydream; these words address the perennial uncertainties that plague human relationships! Listen for yourself:

Along with "Pinkerton" I really enjoy the "Blue Album," mainly because at this stage in the game Weezer knew how to channel the thoughts echoing in our heads. With the "Green Album," and whatever else came after that (I don't care about the 'later weezer') the band lost more than their bassist, they lost touch with their own internal monologues- or at least didn't include it in songs. Maybe something inside Weezer's head fundamentally changed when they came to stardom. Maybe they lost the insecurities that made their music so special. Success changes people.

If my theory here is correct then I'm extremely pleased that Weezer's latest album, the "Red Album" bombed. What a disgraceful piece of work. I was listening to it on my iPod shuffle and thought I had downloaded the wrong album because I didn't have any cover art telling me "yes, the disgrace you're listening to is Weezer."

Even though 90% of the "Red Album" is extremely bad, the hit song "Pork and Beans" shines like a diamond in the rough. In "Pork in Beans" I hear the same magic at work that launched "El Scorcho." Back to their old selves, we hear Weezer yelling an anthem of freedom- or at least what they'd say if they had the guts:

"I'm gonna do the things that I wanna do, I ain't gotta thing to prove to you. I eat my candy with the pork and beans, excuse my manners if I make a scene. I ain't gonna wear the clothes that you like, I'm finally dandy with the me inside. One look in the mirror and I'm tickled pink, I don't give a hoot about what you think."

Now that's the Weezer that rocks! Weezer rocks because they shout out what we're all too afraid to say for ourselves. The music connects with our own fears, insecurities, and uncertainties and shouts them out into the open. When I sing along at the top of my lungs I'm actually shouting out my fears, insecurities, and uncertainties. It feels so good to yell all those thoughts out my head. It's a rush to say what you want how you want to, and Weezer helps makes this expression possible and supremely fun.
Sorry for the cruddy second video but all the real "Pork and Beans" video can't be embedded from YouTube. At least you can hear the song and read the lyrics.
Top: "Pinkerton" album cover features my favorite Japanese woodblock print (浮世栄) by Hiroshige (広重) called Kanbara (蒲原).

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Riding Giants in Thailand

Before leaving Japan my friend Calum and I took a week long trip to one of the most beautiful countries in the world: Thailand. While we spent most of our time in big Bangkok, on the third day of the trip we took a bus to Ayutthaya, the ancient capitol of Thailand which lies about an hour and a half up river from Bangkok. Ayutthaya is famous for its temples (wat in Thai) but for me Ayutthaya is all about riding the local giants; the ELEPHANTS!

Before leaving for Thailand I made the resolution, come hell or high water, to ride an elephant; even if I had to ride it bareback in the Thai jungles. Fortunately, for only 200 bhat ($6) a piece, anyone can ride an elephant outside Ayutthaya's most famous temple, Wat Mongkor Bopitr. I jumped at the chance, I mean, how often does a dude get to ride an elephant?

Riding that giant was a jostling dose of royalty. I can understand why the elephant is the vehicle of kings in many Asian countries; sitting atop the largest land mammal and looking down on the tiny people your giant could crush at will, fills one with a sense of raw power. And traffic accidents, forget about it- nobody wants to rumble with an 11 foot tall (3.4 m), 12,000 pound(5,400) elephant. Mark Twain summed up his elephant riding experience in a similar fashion, "I could easily learn to prefer an elephant to any other vehicle, partly because of the immunity from collisions."

As we tromped along the walking course I tried to talk with the driver but he didn't have much to say. He walked us quietly to the edge of a lake where we paused and looked out over shoe-string waves to an old temple on the far shore. The experience was priceless. In my opinion there's no better way on the planet to spend $6.

The elephant is a holy animal in many Asian cultures. In India, where Twain rode his giant, the most popular deity is Ganesha, a god with a human body and an elephant head helps people through troubles.

Elephants are also play an important role in Thai culture where they serve as the national animal and were once found on the Thailand's national flag. Everything elephants do has some special significance, especially breeding. After our elephant returned to the corral and we dismounted, I visited the nearby gift shop and bought an amazing elephant postcard which showed the sacred act of elephant coitus. With a scene so graphic, I'm glad it wasn't one of the sights I came across in friendly Thailand.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Winding Paths, Entangling Shadows

What is the role of the philosopher and to what goal is philosophy written? I ask myself these questions often as I have a graduate degree in philosophy and fancy myself of a philosophical disposition. After two plus years away from academic halls I ask these questions anew and now with an ethical searchlight: to what extent should one's philosophy influence the thinker's behavior and ideological affiliations? Perhaps I should arrive at a solution before writing here, but, in the words of the late French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, "We write at the boundary of knowledge; for if we wrote only that which were certain no one should ever write anything."

My struggle to answer these foundational questions makes me consider the life of the German thinker Martin Heidegger. His philosophical mind is powerful and thought provoking, yet I find the most intriguing questions are asked outside the bindings of his books. Heidegger's life forces me to ask my questions earnestly, and, in some respects, judgementally.

Martin Heidegger seen by many the most influential philosopher of the twentieth century. His 1927 release of Being and Time, shook the foundations of western philosophy, mainly because it questioned the very foundation of western philosophy by examining Being. Yes that is Being with a "big B." For many people, me included, Being isn't a topic I ponder in my daily life. But alas, Heidegger pondered the hell out of it and wrote a 488 page book detailing his thoughts.

The book is a gauntlet. Of all the books on my self I am proudest that I read the whole of it. A monster text and imposing, I waded through it at a snail's pace of 5 pages/hour; meaning I spent 100 hours with the book. With 4 days of my life scribbled on its pages you might begin to understand the attachment I have to the book.

Heidegger's mind was sharp as a Ginsu -no one, whether they agree or disagree with his work questions that. The questions Heidegger's shadow faces most often are those of an ideological nature, and for no small reason: Heidegger was a Nazi. -Did you say Nazi? -Sure did, call Dr. Jones.

Yes, Heidegger was a member of the Nazi party until the party was over. During the first year of his Nazi affiliation he was appointed rector of the University of Freiburg, an occasion historically marked by his speech praising National Socialism and its merits. About a year after resigning as rector of the university, Heidegger, in his 1935 work An Introduction to Metaphysics, praises National Socialism and it's "inner truth" writing:

The works that are being peddled about nowadays as the philosophy of National Socialism but have nothing whatever to do with the inner truth and greatness of this movement (namely the encounter between global technology and modern man)-have all been written by men fishing in the troubled waters of "values" and "totalities."

Heidegger was greatly interested in technology's effects on humanity, effects most egregiously witnessed in the concentration camps, where Heidegger writes in his piece The Danger:

Hundreds of thousands die in masses. Do they die? They come undone. They are disposed of. Do they die? They become part of the stock to supply the fabrication of corpses. Do they die? They are liquidated inconspicuously in extermination camps.

Using Heidegger's philosophy of death, I interpret Heidegger's seemingly cold words to mean that those dying in the camps are being stripped of the human being's right to a meaningful death. Death in Heidegger's thought is the moment we face ourselves at our most honestly and authentically, and should no one should be robbed of that moment of vision. He roughs this idea out in the following paragraph:

To die, however, means to carry death out in its essence. To be able to die, means to be capable of this commission. We are capable of it only if our essence inclines to the essence of death.

Whether one agrees with my sympathetic reading of Heidegger's questionable "Do they die?" section, one fact is clear: it was the Nazis who created the means to murder so many Jewish people in their camps, thanks in no small part to their technological twistedness. "Yes they did die Heidegger, and your own Nazi party is wholly responsible for the genocide."

With the Nazi party dismantled after WWII, Heidegger was banned from teaching in German universities due to his involvement. Heidegger never apologized or offered a retrospective justification for his membership in the Nazi party. He never slapped himself on the head and thought himself misguided for his affiliations; at least not publicly, and I doubt he did so in private either.

Can one separate Heidegger's Nazi ideology from his written philosophy? Sure. It's easy to read books out of their historical contexts --it happens with the bible all the time. It's even easier to forget that Heidegger was a Nazi because he makes so little reference to the ideology in his published work, philosophical or otherwise.

And how does an examination of Heidegger's life and work help me answer the questions above? What role should philosophers play in society and how should their work guide their conduct and ideological convictions?

Well, philosophers are societies' thinkers, that's about all their good at, and they should be good thinkers because that is their speciality. Joe the plumber unclogs drains, Neil the accountant balances the books, Norm the carpenter builds cabinets, and philosophers think, teach, and write books. Each is held to standards of quality and value.

While the majority of philosophers' work takes place in the classroom and in the mind, the goal should, in my thinking, always be to illuminate the world in which we live by inspiring a thirst for deeper meanings, fed by limitless curiosity. Philosophers should embody their convictions and write from those convictions. While everyone lives out of different values, the ultimate value of any philosophy need be one that draws its readers closer to attaining their human potential.

This goal of bringing people into their full humanity is the chief aim of philosophy and education. Of course when we talk of values today we enter a battleground with muddy footing. The questions which occupy philosophy are questions of values, and they are difficult questions. On what scales are philosophers weighed? How does one determine the value of thought and what is worth thinking? What is ultimate value of Value? Tricky questions inspired by my first questions; a deepening of the issue by an uncomfortable excavation of the heart. Heidegger himself acknowledges the difficulty of securing values by anchoring them to a center, and I conclude this difficult blog post with one his thoughts:

Even if a future philosopher should reach this center [of value]-- we of the present day can only work toward it-- he will not escape entanglement, but it will be a different entanglement. No one can jump over his own shadow.


Quotations: Line from Deleuze is from his introduction in Difference in Repitition (I can't provide more info because I seem to have left my copy in Japan. It's a tough book anyhow.) Heidegger, An Introduction to Metaphysics, translated by Ralph Manheim, (Yale 1959). Heidegger, The Danger, translated by Frank Seeburger, (from University of Denver in class discussion 2005). Final qoute from An Introduction of Metaphysics, ibid, brackets mine. Picture: Rodin's "The Thinker," the consumate image of the philosopher.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Motor Head

It's been a busy month for me. I did a huge trip through huge Texas; first to visit my cousins in the Austin area, then to visit my grand mother in the Dallas area, and, finally, I went back to Austin to pick up my newest and greatest treasure: my 1995, Yamaha 1100cc Virago. I found the bike on ebay and got a great deal on the beast, which remarkably only had 4,500 mile on it. I'm the third owner of this pristine motorcycle. The gentleman I bought the bike from said "this is a true motorcycle: it's a big motor with a gas tank and wheels strapped to it." I couldn't agree more. So, without further adeu, here she is:) I love this bike! It's my treasure. I can honestly state that burning 90 mph down the highway is the most fun I've ever had with my pants on (though I haven't ridden it naked yet)! I'll be posting more pictures of it on my Flickr page so check them out.