Thursday, March 29, 2007

I Am Logical. Hear Me Roar!

For those of you who have been following my trials and tribulations with finishing the last stages of the PhD, I am happy to announce that I have finally defeated my arch-nemesis, the Logic Exam. Yeah, that's right, the sun even shines on a lame dog sometimes. Only one last (big) hoop to jump through now....

Let me put this in the language of my newfound talent. Everyone knows that if Penn State says that you passed the logic exam then you rock the casbah. P= Penn State is a respectable institution. T= Respectable institutions always tell the truth. R= Everyone who Penn State determines as passing the logic exam rocks the casbah. E= Penn State determined that Leigh passed the logic exam. L= Leigh rocks the casbah.

1) If (P & T) then R
2) T
3) P
4) If (E & R) then L
5) E

6) (P & T) ........................ 2, 3 Conj.
7) R ................................. 1, 6 M.P.
8) (E & R) ....................... 5, 7 Conj.
9) L!! ............................... 4, 8 M.P.

No, the shareef don't like it. He don't like it a bit...

Thursday, March 22, 2007

the problem with dumb questions

I was eager to read the "10 Questions About the Future of the Humanities in America" posed by Thomas Mallon in the current issue of The American Scholar. Then, alas, I actually read them. If you haven't already seen them, here they are:
1. How can American professors learn to write about literature in language that isn’t a crude, pseudo-technical insult to the text it’s supposedly explicating?

2. How can current undergraduate instruction in the humanities, mired as it is in jargon and political faddishness, hope to inspire at least a portion of the most gifted students to enter academic life rather than, say, business school or TV production?

3. Are we willing to make the effort to teach a new generation — one that’s never known a world without the wildly accessible Web — that words and ideas can in fact be owned, at least for a period of time?

4. Even so, are owners of intellectual property willing to realize that longer and longer copyright terms are doing more to inhibit than promote creativity?

5. How can the contemplative mind survive in the multitasking, ADD-inducing world of digitization? Are we willing to face the downside of this great electronic boon? Do we really want students reading electronic texts of the classics that are festooned with more links than a Wikipedia entry? Aren’t a few moments of quiet bafflement preferable to an endless steeplechase across Web page after Web page?

6. Are we willing to consider the irony that our unceasing communication with one another — the dozen extra phone calls that we all now make each day; the two dozen pointless e-mails — is making us less human? And that we might have more important things to say if we could re-master the lost art of shutting up, for at least a half hour every now and then?

7. Are American writers, artists, and thinkers truly prepared to admit that Islamofascism is a real, and even imminent, threat to everything they are accustomed to thinking, saying, and creating?

8. Can the National Endowment for the Humanities, even as it continues a laudable effort to make Americans better acquainted with their own history, learn to resist a platitudinous rhetoric that sometimes makes it seem like the National Endowment for Classroom Civics?

9. Are Americans in general prepared to admit that their writing and speaking skills are in no better shape than their waistlines?

10. Are we also willing to admit that the universalization of English is more apparent than real? And that our general failure to know foreign languages is an act of both laziness and arrogance — one that threatens America’s legitimate claims to leadership in the world?
I'm really baffled by the current ilk of conservative-intellectuals who have developed the ability to be equally adept at snubbing both the hoi polloi and a large segnment of professional academia. Which is it? Are we all more illiterate and inarticulate (and fat, acc. to #9)? Or are we pretentiously over-educated? Are we too political (#8) or not political enough (#7)? Do we underestimate the value of the "life of the mind" (#5, #6) or do we overestimate it (#1, #4)? I'm confused...

Friday, March 16, 2007

Anatomy of an Illusion

In the recent film "The Prestige" (based on the Christopher Priest novel of the same name), the narrator explains the structure of a standard magic trick. Every illusion, we are told, has three parts:
First, there is the setup, or the "pledge," in which the magician shows us something that appears ordinary but is probably not, making use of misdirection. (Example: a magician shows a dove.) Second, there is the performance or the trick, known as the "turn," in which the magician makes the ordinary extraordinary. (The bird disappears.) Lastly, there is the "prestige" where the effect of the illusion is produced. (The bird reappears.)
The idea driving the film is that every illusion needs the prestige. No one claps when the bird disappears because, as the film suggests, it isn't enough just to make something disappear. You have to make it come back. The "prestige" is what makes us wonder to ourselves: how did he do that? was that a trick? or was it really magic?
Now, for some people (like Hugh Jackman's character in the film) the prestige is both wonder-producing and maddening. We want to figure it out-- or to believe that it can be figured out--and for some of us the "mystery" will nag us and drive us obsessively toward uncovering the mystery that has stymied our understanding.
So, here's my suggestion: philosophers, in particular, need the prestige. Maybe philosophy is the prestige.... the presentation of the illusion that something--perhaps everything--can be known.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

(yet another) Last King of Scotland

I just saw "The Last King of Scotland", the film about Idi Amin (starring Forrest Whittaker). Although I think that Whittaker's performance was impressive, I am slightly disturbed by a recent trend in filmmaking that portrays "African conflicts" in a reductively "nativist" kind of way.

Here's my problem-- in the recent films I have seen about South Africa ("In My Country" and "Catch a Fire"), Uganda ("Last King of Scotland") and Rwanda ("Hotel Rwanda"), the filmmakers seem to make very little effort to explain the contours of the political conflicts they are representing, and are happy instead to simply portray a very complicated piece of history as a kind of gruesome and barbarian historical anomaly. Clearly it is the case that the genocide in Rwanda, South African apartheid, and the Amin administration were brutal regimes characterized by gross violations of human rights, but they did not occur in a vaccuum. Why do filmmakers think that their viewers are incpable of understanding the subtleties of these conflicts? Or, what is more likely, why do fimmakers so quickly resort to representing African political affairs in nativist terms and images? Is is because the Western audiences (to whom these films are clearly marketed) are unwilling or unable to conceive of African political conflict as something more than just black people resorting to the "essential" tendencies of their racial heritage?

It should go without saying, I hope, that the political conflicts of Africa are not, categorically, more brutal or inhumane that the political conflicts of the West. To the extent that inhumanity can be understood at all, it is usually represented in film (even if not justified) as deeply contextualized when it is in reference to Western political affairs. (Think of "Saving Private Ryan," or even "Deerhunter" for that matter.) We seem to be able to understand, in reference to our own political conflicts, that horrible conditions make possible horrible actions. But in the recent films about African conflicts, the message I get is that horrible people make possible horrible actions, especially if those people are black or, if they are white, have been resigned to living in the God-forsaken depths of the "Dark Continent."

What's up with that?