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John Holbo

A Double-dose of Thymos!

by John Holbo on September 16, 2016

Welp, I guess The Claremont Review is bidding fair to be the intellectual organ – gland, call it what you will – of Trumpism:

The Flight 93 guy is back, and scolding critics for their lack of appreciation of ancient Greek rhetoric techniques. How ungracious to have missed that!

And there’s this:

Trump is a very American character, a very New York character, the businessman who understands the world: the sophos who could bring efficiency, toughness (his favorite quality), and common sense to politics, if only he were listened to.

Yeah, now that you mention it, he does kind of look like one! “These philosoph shoes, are longing to stray! … If I can think it there, I’ll think it anywhere!” But there is a threat!

Every republic eventually faces what might be called the Weimar problem. Has the national culture, popular and elite, deteriorated so much that the virtues necessary to sustain republican government are no longer viable?

Yeah, come to think of it, I liked it better under the Kaiser. After they moved it to Weimar? I dunno … it was like everyone just forgot what had made the Republic great. All those ancient, civic virtues Tocqueville had praised in Democracy in Prussia were just swirling the drain. Bismarck must have been spinning in his grave to see such a sad remnant of once vibrant Republicanism. And today we are seeing something like that again. It’s like people just don’t study history anymore.

As a sophos might say: sad.

William F. Buckley, Totalitarian Bureaucracy Apologist?

by John Holbo on September 11, 2016

So I’m reading Right Wing Critics of American Conservatism, by George Hawley.

The most important issue of the day, it is time to admit it, is survival. Here there is apparently some confusion in the ranks of conservatives, and hard thinking is in order for them. The thus-far invincible aggressiveness of the Soviet Union does or does not constitute a threat to the security of the United States, and we have got to decide which. If it does, we shall have to arrange, sensibly, our battle plans; and this means that we have got to accept Big Government for the duration — for neither an offensive nor a defensive war can be waged, given our present government skills, except though the instrument of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores.

– William F. Buckley, “The Party and the Deep Blue Sea”, Commonweal, January, 1952, 391-2

Huh. You can read the original here. The subtitle was, “Ideally, the Republican platform should acknowledge an internal enemy, the State”. But – Nock on wood – that’s a non-starter, given the Soviet threat; so totalitarianism it is! Weird piece.

This “Flight 93 Election” essay is getting linked around. Apparently Rush Limbaugh performed it on air. Some conservatives are dismayed, others delighted.

It’s the first political tract I have ever read that singles out Chicken Little, by name, as a conspicuous squish on the pressing ‘sky is falling’ issue of the day.

Yet we may also reasonably ask: What explains the Pollyanna-ish declinism of so many others? That is, the stance that Things-Are-Really-Bad—But-Not-So-Bad-that-We-Have-to-Consider-Anything-Really-Different! The obvious answer is that they don’t really believe the first half of that formulation. If so, like Chicken Little, they should stick a sock in it.

If only Chicken Little had nominated Foghorn Leghorn, for President, that would have proved he was taking this ‘sky is falling’ issue seriously. Actions speak louder, I say, LOUDER than words! “Pay attention to me, boy! I’m not just talkin’ to hear my head roar!” [click to continue…]

Knee Deep In The Hoopla

by John Holbo on September 2, 2016

Earworms are having a moment. As if they needed one. “All Songs Considered” served up a rewind of an old episode on “Worst Songs”. (I really can’t imagine hating Meatloaf, “Paradise By The Dashboard Light”. It’s just a blues cheese track that doesn’t take itself seriously, in a Rocky Horror way. What’s to hate? It isn’t even an earworm. Also “We were barely 17 and we were barely dressed” is great lyrics.)

But mostly it’s this GQ article getting linked around on FB: an ‘oral history’ of Starship’s “Built This City”. Here’s my favorite bit: [click to continue…]

More Zorn

by John Holbo on August 25, 2016

There’s a class of Amazon negative reviews. Not vicious or trolling. These are honest, often terse reports. I will not foreshadow my Kierkegaardian theme by calling them ‘preambles from the heart’. They are fired off from the front, where the battle is forever being fought and lost against the relentless disappointment of erroneous expectation. I’m thinking of purchasing In Another Light: Danish Painting In the 19th Century. But what’s this I read? “Not what I expected.wanted more Zorn!” [click to continue…]

Scholars and critics may learnedly dispute when Schulz did his finest work with Peanuts. Let me say, I’m reading Volume 11 (1971-2) with the younger one, and we were dying over the whole Bunny-Wunnies business. I’ll quote from the wiki bibliography of Miss Helen Sweetstory’s collected works:

The Six Bunny Wunnies and Their Pony Cart
The Six Bunny Wunnies Go to Long Beach
The Six Bunny Wunnies Make Cookies
The Six Bunny Wunnies Join an Encounter Group
The Six Bunny Wunnies and Their XK-E
The Six Bunny Wunnies and Their Water Bed
The Six Bunny Wunnies and Their Layover in Anderson, Indiana
The Six Bunny Wunnies and the Female Veterinarian
The Six Bunny Wunnies Freak Out

Let’s not forget the time Snoopy became disillusioned with Miss Sweetstory’s collected works and gifted the set to a grateful Linus. [click to continue…]

Swords Against Punditry!

by John Holbo on August 14, 2016

In the hopes that everyone will stop commenting on Corey’s post, hence at considerable risk to myself: a fresh Trump post.

Since becoming aware of this thing called ‘US politics’, some decades ago, I have been addicted to the consumption of punditry. I don’t say it with pride, or because I suppose it makes me special. I just thought I’d mention that one thing that makes Trump’s candidacy weird – in a phenomenological sense, I guess – is that there is no pro-Trump pundit class. This makes his candidacy inaudible along one of the frequencies I habitually tune in. By and large, I can’t go to NR or The Weekly Standard or Red State, much less Ross Douthat or National Affairs, to get pretzel logic confabulations on Trump’s behalf, because they actually haven’t gotten on board. To their credit. Twitter is a snarknado of negative partisanship. Breitbart and Drudge are entropically dire, in a Shannon-informational sense. Hugh Hewitt? Nixonian party loyalist. He’s defending Trump the way he defended Harriet Miers, i.e. it really has nothing to do with the quality of the candidate. The only Trumpkins comfortable in their skins are the alt-right folks, reveling in rather than regretting the fact that Trump is constantly escaping from the Overton Straitjacket; and pick-up artists who regard Trump’s alpha male posturing as a feature, not a diagnosis. Oh, and there’s Scott Adams. “The fun part is that we can see cognitive dissonance when it happens to others – such as with my friend, and CNN – but we can’t see it when it happens to us. So don’t get too smug about this. You’re probably next.” Duly noted. [click to continue…]

Another Kierkegaard post, then! The masses are clamoring for them, demanding this sweet release from ongoing Olympic coverage! Also, Trump!

19th Century European philosophy. Does it crack along the 1848 faultline, after which Hegel is dead? Not sure but maybe. In addition, many of the main figures are odd men out – Kierkegaard, Nietzsche (and I like Schopenhauer, too.) Hegel was huge but his stock collapsed. He went from hero to zero and later figures like Frege, whom analytic philosophers sometimes suppose must have been opposed to Hegel, just didn’t give him much thought. (Frege was worried about Lotze, i.e. neo-Kantianism, not Hegel. The notion that analytic philosophy opposes Hegel is a kind of anachronistic back-formation of Russell and Moore’s opposition to the likes of McTaggart, i.e. the Scottish Hegelians, who were their own thing. But I digress.) Philosophy in general had a fallen rep in the second half of the 19th century, at least in German-speaking regions. Also in France? An age of positivism? Natural science was what you wanted to be doing, not speculative nonsense. There is a strong regionalism. German stuff in the 19th Century is very German. The Romantics. (Whereas, in the 17th Century, the Frenchness of Descartes, the Germanness of Leibniz, the Englishness of Locke, even the Jewishness of Spinoza seem less formidable obstacles to mutual comprehension. I am broad-brushing, not dismissing historical digs into this stuff. Tell me I’m wrong! It won’t hurt my feelings.)

Kierkegaard is not the lone wolf Nietzsche will be later, but he’s a regional figure. Part of the Copenhagen scene, the Danish Golden Age. Nordic literary culture, tied into German culture and French culture, too, but distinctive and somewhat self-contained. So I’m asking myself: what are good historical handles? And I think: maybe read some Georg Brandes? He was very influenced by Kierkegaard, at the end of a passionate Hegelian fling in youth. He gave the first public lectures on Nietzsche, at a time when he – Brandes – was personally famous, a towering figure in criticism. He was responsible for Nietzsche’s fame, in effect. (Is that too strong?) He also traveled to England, met J.S. Mill, after translating The Subjection of Women into Danish.

I was very much surprised when Mill informed me that he had not read a line of Hegel, either in the original or in translation, and regarded the entire Hegelian philosophy as sterile and empty sophistry. I mentally confronted this with the opinion of the man at the Copenhagen University who knew the history of philosophy best, my teacher, Hans Bröchner, who knew, so to speak, nothing of contemporary English and French philosophy, and did not think them worth studying. I came to the conclusion that here was a task for one who understood the thinkers of the two directions, who did not mutually understand one another.

I thought that in philosophy, too, I knew what I wanted, and saw a road open in front of me. However, I never travelled it. (276-7, Reminiscences of My Childhood and Youth)

Yet there’s a lot of philosophical interest in his books. (You can get a number for free from the Internet Archive, as they were all translated into English in the early 20th Century, when Brandes was at the height of his fame.) [click to continue…]

Captain’s Holiday

by John Holbo on August 11, 2016

I’ve always been of the ‘McCartney is tooooo sweet’ school, though I’m aware he has tried to recapture that “Helter Skelter” grit and growl periodically down the years. Well, I just discovered his 2008 Fireman album, Electric Arguments, which is a terrible name for an album, which got some critical attention at the time but I missed it. I think a few tracks are pretty darn great. Beefheart-y beefiness, even if Paul’s pipes were built to shine at the high end. He isn’t exactly Howlin’ Wolf. But the boy can sing. Track 1 [click to continue…]

Caricature and Kierkegaard

by John Holbo on August 10, 2016

I wrote a survey article on “Caricature and Comics” for The Routledge Companion To Comics. (I’m sorry to say that the volume is currently very overpriced, although I trust in a few years they will release a more modestly-priced paperpack version, and the Kindle version price shall descend from the heavens, where it dwells.) However, Routledge allows authors to self-archive, so I did. Abstract:

Caricature and comics are elastic categories. This essay treats caricature not as a type or aspect of comics but as a window through which we can view comics in relation to the broader European visual art tradition. Caricature is exaggeration. But all art exaggerates, insofar as it stylizes. Is all art caricature, since all has ‘style’? Ernst Gombrich’s classic Art and Illusion comes close to arguing so. This article conjoins critical reflections on Gombrich’s discussion of ‘the experiment of caricature’ with a survey of art historical paradigm cases. It makes sense for comics to emerge from this mix.

And this seems like a nice occasion to showcase the newest addition to my small, but growing set of philosophical caricatures. Soren Kierkegaard!

[click to continue…]

My old poker buddy Eric Schwitzgebel has, for some time, been soliciting Top-10 lists from folks who teach SF and philosophy. So I finally got around to contributing. Tell me I’m wrong!

Eric has busted into sf authorship himself since our grad school days. Here’s one of his in Clarkesworld, “Fishdance”. “The two most addictive ideas in history, religion and video-gaming, would finally become one.” It’s good!

One thing I’m going to talk about this semester is the domestication of experience machines. In genre terms, The Matrix is a bit played out. Inception. Been there, done that. Can we agree about that? Also, video games just get normaler and normaler. Yesterday I looked around on the train and I was, literally, the only person NOT playing “Pokemon Go”. True story! It felt a bit weird. They were all off together in an alternate version of the city. I was alone in the real one, with only my headphones and music to keep me warm – like some savage. There are two obvious ways to make virtual life, as an alternative to real life, appealing: make the world really messed up. Make the virtual world nice. Maybe the people behind the scenes don’t need to be Agent Smith-style jerks. The first film to play it this way, in a nice way, is Avalon. But no one saw it. Good film. More recently you get the likes of Ready Player One and Off To Be The Wizard, in which players of games – and games within games, and games within games within games – are increasingly comfortable with the whole biz. Not that there’s no lingering anxiety about the appropriateness of this life strategy! I like to think that one of my all time faves, The Glass Bead Game, is an honored ancestor. Homo Ludens. What’s Latin for ‘man, the player of virtual reality games’?

Of course, I think of myself as more of a cartoonist than an sf author. Since I’m on the subject, here are a couple graphics I whipped up for my module last time, which amused me – although I did it all fast-and-sketchy. I’d really like to remake them carefully, in a Norman Saunders-y style.

The idea is to make fake pulp covers for classic scientific and philosophical thought-experiments. [click to continue…]

The Kith of the Elf-Folk – Unberufen?

by John Holbo on August 6, 2016

As I believe I have mentioned, I’m teaching Kierkegaard. K is an excellently – some say inordinately – literary-aesthetical sort of fellow, so we want to welcome that quality, when we invite him to come give a talk to our class. But there comes a stage in man’s life when he wearies of undergraduates writing yet another paper about Fight Club and/or The Matrix, or even “The Grand Inquisitor” from Dostoyevsky. More broadly, there is an academic convention – who knows when it got started? – of nudging the young into equating a work of philosophy to a work of literature/art, i.e. pretending the latter is likely to be, let alone was intended to be, a vehicle for the expression of the former. And so it turns out Hamlet was Shakespeare’s ham-handed attempt to write an essay on Freud, or what have you. These attempted equations invite minor (or major) fraud. (Not that I think this is a major social problem. Mostly it’s just silly and strained.) And for what? You can fit things to things without exaggerating the degree of fit. (Kierkegaard was a weirdo. What are the odds any literary figure, who wasn’t K, ever produced a Kierkegaardian work of literary fiction? Hell, even K had to pretend he wasn’t himself, half the time, to keep from falling into error about his author’s meaning.)

I’m thinking of assigning a few short works that are, to my eye, not Kierkegaardian. But one can make connections, draw lines. For example, Lord Dunsany’s “The Kith of the Elf-Folk”. Here we have spheres of existence, I guess you could say: aesthetic, religious – ethical? (Now we are pushing it.) And there is a nice question, twinkling in the author’s eye: which is higher? How could one be in a position to say? And there is an implied indictment of modern society (who could wish for less?) And there is a lyrical seriousness, yet ironic playfulness. So the question I’m going to ask the kids is: suppose you had to rewrite “The Kith of the Elf-Folk” to be a parable of Kierkegaard’s stages – which it plainly is not. What changes would you have to make? Defend your adaptive edits!

Or maybe that’s a really, really bad question that will produce bad results in my classroom.

But my question for you is a bit different. How great is this story? Pretty great, right? [click to continue…]

More On Gaus’ The Tyranny of the Ideal

by John Holbo on August 4, 2016

Having posted about Gaus’ new book, let me link to Will Wilkinson’s review essay at Vox. Will is more enthused about the conclusions than I am, although I agree it’s a great read. I’ve been trying to work out my own thoughts in the same vicinity and, for post purposes, I’ll just sketch a thumbnail argument that seems to me the right Gaus-style indictment of Rawls, using a modified version of his mountain metaphor. [click to continue…]

It seems Gary Johnson/Bill Weld have been disappointing to conservatives and right-leaning libertarians (fusionists), looking for an alternative to Trump. For example, Ilya Shapiro, in “Is Johnson-Weld a Libertarian Ticket?”
[click to continue…]

Home again, home again, jiggety-jig. Although jetlag is is the the more pressing concern.

Now I can get back to drawing Zarathustra! Which reminds me: a few pages went up a few days ago, yet I didn’t flog them here at CT. So: here!

[click to continue…]