27 February 2006

Monday Quote Cogitation #2 - Damasio

Thinking about consciousness… Antonio Damasio has been pitching a theory of consciousness (e.g., in The Feeling of What Happens) grounded in the idea that, when the brain responds to the outside world, it not only maps the phenomenon, but also maps its own response to the phenomenon. The brain tracks all the physiological phenomena of the body – not just sense data, but status of muscles and electrolyte balance and so forth. The brain’s consideration of this basic body state becomes the core sense of self.

In Looking for Spinoza, this idea leads to what strikes me as a physiological basis for the Aristotelian concept of eudaemonia:
[T]here are organism states in which the regulation of life processes becomes efficient, or even optimal, free-flowing and easy. This is a well-established physiological fact. It is not a hypothesis. The feelings that usually accompany such physiologically conducive states are deemed ‘positive,’ characterized not just by absence of pain but by varieties of pleasure. There also are organism states in which life processes struggle for balance and can even be chaotically out of control. The feelings that usually accompany such states are deemed ‘negative,’ characterized not just by absence of pleasure but by varieties of pain.

Monday Quote Cogitation #1 - Searle

The intelligent design crowd are fond of body components that give the impression of being machines, whose purposes are manifested in their ‘designs’. What would they do with this quote from John Searle, from The Mystery of Consciousness?
I, for one, am always amazed by the specificity of biological systems, and, in the case of the brain, the specificity takes a form you could not have predicted just from knowing what it does. If you were designing an organic machine to pump blood you might come up with something like a heart, but if you were designing a machine to produce consciousness, who would think of a hundred billion neurons?

21 February 2006

Tuesday Quote Extra - Depravity and Bullshit

In the context of yesterday’s extended quote from Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit, it is interesting to note this quote from Voltaire:
Plus les moeurs sont dépravés, plus les expressions deviennent mesurées; on croit regagner en langage ce qu’on a perdu en vertu.
This is one of two quotes from Voltaire inserted by Byron in the Preface to Cantos VI-VIII of Don Juan. In my Penguin edition, it is translated as:
The more depraved our conduct it, the more guarded words become; we believe we can regain with words what we have lost in character.
Byron was responding to charges of blasphemy (and worse) leveled against the earlier Cantos. But it is worth considering that Voltaire anticipated nicely the psychology of the bullshitter.

20 February 2006

Monday Quote Frenzy - Bullshit

Sigh. Another cussword, driving up my sluttiness quotient.

Harry Frankfurt's little black book, On Bullshit, has been out for about a year, with surprisingly little play in the blogs that I read, so I thought I would include the excerpts that struck me as most important - which for me were all near the end. For those unfamiliar with the book, it is in fact a repackaging of an article that Frankfurt did originally as a contribution to a 1986 seminar series at Yale. He published it in The Raritan Review, and collected it with other essays in his 1988 book The Importance of What We Care About.
Ian Malcolm, an editor at Princeton University Press, decided to republish it to bring it to a wider audience. Frankfurt talked about the origin of the essay with the New York Times on Feb. 14, 2005; Malcolm described the republication in a comment at Crooked Timber the following day.

The definition of bullshit is precise:
[A] statement … grounded neither in a belief that it is true nor, as a lie must be, in a belief that it is not true. It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth – this indifference to how things really are – that I regard as of the essence of bullshit.
This is the crux of the distinction between [the bullshitter] and the liar. Both he and the liar represent themselves falsely as endeavoring to communicate the truth. The success of each depends upon deceiving us about that. But the fact about himself that the liar hides is that he is attempting to lead us away from a correct apprehension of reality; we are not to know that he wants us to believe something he supposes to be false. The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides, on the other hand, is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor to conceal it. This does not mean that his speech is anarchically impulsive, but that the motive guiding and controlling it is unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are.

The dangers of bullshit are similarly clear:
Both in lying and in telling the truth people are guided by their beliefs concerning the way things are. These guide them as they endeavor either to describe the world correctly or to describe it deceitfully. For this reason, telling lies does not tend to unfit a person for telling the truth in the same way that bullshitting tends to. Through excessive indulgence in the latter activity, which involves making assertions without paying attention to anything except what it suits one to say, a person’s normal habit of attending to the ways things are may become attenuated or lost.
[The bullshitter] does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.

Why is there so much bullshit? Could be politics; could be 24-hour news networks; could be talk shows (radio or TV); could be blogs.
Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic exceed his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled – whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others – to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant. Closely related instances arise from the widespread conviction that it is the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy to have opinions about everything, or at least everything that pertains to the conduct of his country’s affairs. The lack of any significant connection between a person’s opinions and his apprehension of reality will be even more severe, needless to say, for someone who believes it his responsibility, as a conscientious moral agent, to evaluate events and conditions in all parts of the world.

When you remember that this essay was written in 1986, its prediction of the degraded standards of modern public life is depressingly perfect – although he attributes it to a loss of confidence in notions of objectivity.
One response to this loss of confidence has been a retreat from the discipline required by dedication to the ideal of correctness to a quite different sort of discipline, which is imposed by pursuit of an alternative ideal of sincerity. Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself. Convinced that reality has no inherent nature, which he might hope to identify as the truth about things, he devotes himself to being true to his own nature. It is as though he decides that since it makes no sense to try to be true to the facts, he must therefore try instead to be true to himself.
And that, of course, is the final irony.
As conscious beings, we exist only in response to other things, and we cannot know ourselves at all without knowing them. Moreover, there is nothing in theory, and certainly nothing in experience, to support the extraordinary judgment that it is the truth about himself that is the easiest for a person to know. Facts about ourselves are not peculiarly solid and resistant to skeptical dissolution. Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial – notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.

13 February 2006

Monday Quote Frenzy – Byron

Lord Byron’s dedicatory stanzas in Don Juan are a fierce attack on poet laureate Robert Southey and other gentlemanly romantics (especially Wordsworth). Any reading of stanzas 12 to 15 that conveys a modern political interpretation is purely… delightful.

Cold-blooded, smooth-faced, placid miscreant!
Dabbling its sleek young hands in Erin’s gore,
And thus for wider carnage taught to pant,
Transferred to gorge upon a sister shore,
The vulgarest tool that tyranny could want,
With just enough of talent and no more,
To lengthen fetters by another fixed
And offer poison long already mixed.

An orator of such set trash of phrase,
Ineffably, legitimately vile,
That even its grossest flatterers dare not praise,
Nor foes – all nations – condescend to smile.
Not even a sprightly blunder’s spark can blaze
From that Ixion grindstone’s ceaseless toil,
That turns and turns to give the world a notion
Of endless torments and perpetual motion.

A bungler even in its disgusting trade,
And botching, patching, leaving still behind
Something of which its masters are afraid,
States to be curbed and thoughts to be confined,
Conspiracy or congress to be made,
Cobbling at manacles for all mankind,
A tinkering slave-maker, who mends old chains,
With God and man’s abhorrence for its gains.

If we may judge of matter by the mind,
Emasculated to the marrow, it
Hath but two objects, how to serve and bind,
Deeming the chain it wears even men may fit,
Eutropius of its many masters, blind
To worth as freedom, wisdom as to wit,
Fearless, because no feeling dwells in ice;
Its very courage stagnates to a vice.

12 February 2006

Piss Christ and the Mohammed Cartoons

Sigh. I used the word ‘piss’. That’s bound to get this blog put on the naughty list. But it can’t be helped.

I’ve thought about the merits of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, a photograph of a crucifix immersed in urine – Serrano’s own urine, in fact – for some time. The photo’s public prominence as a supposed example of liberal art gone wild was cemented by Senator Alphonse D'Amato, when he tore up a copy in the chambers of the U.S. Senate on May 18, 1989. But recent allusions to it in discussions of the publication of cartoons ridiculing Mohammed have prompted me to go public with what may be a difficult interpretation.

Fundamentally (alas, an adverb that carries too much freight these days), I think that Piss Christ is a profound statement of Christian belief.

As an example of how it is perceived these days, here is Anne Applebaum in the February 8 Washington Post. (A free subscription is required, and is only good for going back a few weeks; after that, they want cash from researchers.) Applebaum is listing the issues that she thinks have been pushed into public view by the cartoon controversy.
Hypocrisy of the cultural left. Dozens of American newspapers, including The Post, have stated that they won't reprint the cartoons because, in the words of one self-righteous editorial, they prefer to "refrain from gratuitous assaults on religious symbols." Fair enough -- but is this always true? An excellent domestic parallel is the fracas that followed the 1989 publication of "Piss Christ," a photograph of Christ on a crucifix submerged in a jar of urine. That picture -- a work of art that received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts -- led to congressional denunciations, protests and letter-writing campaigns.

At the time, many U.S. newspapers that refused last week to publish the Danish cartoons -- the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe (but apparently not The Post) -- did publish "Piss Christ." The photographer, Andres Serrano, enjoyed his 15 minutes of fame, even appearing in a New York Times fashion spread. The picture was exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art and elsewhere. The moral: While we are nervous about gratuitously offending believers in distant, underdeveloped countries, we don't mind gratuitously offending believers at home.
Now I’m not interested right now in what debates went on at the L. A. Times and the Boston Globe. The question is whether Piss Christ really is a bad-boy stunt intended solely to shock and offend, based on the adolescent presumption that the only good art is offensive. I suggest that there are three issues we need to investigate before we come to that assessment: (1) What are the purely aesthetic values of the work? (2) What significant meaning can we derive from the work? (3) What did the artist say about his intentions?

Aesthetic Quality
: It is hard to appreciate the aesthetic impact of the photograph based on the sort of reproduction that we can post here. The original was large (60 inches by 40 inches), and glossy. The colors are saturated. If I didn’t know that the crucifix was in urine, I would be struck by the subtle golden hue of the crucifix seen against a red backdrop, the gauzy lack of focus that makes the image dreamlike, and the clear illumination from above, as if a single sunbeam had penetrated the storm to do homage. If there were no title, no information on how the image was produced, it would not be offensive. I doubt that I would find reason to revisit it the way I do major works, but I am glad to have seen it.

Significant Meaning: As I said above, the loss of focus suggests an event recalled at a distance, in memory or dream. That would be a reasonable, if not subtle, interpretation. But of course, the question is what meaning I derive from the fact that the golden glow comes from light filtering through urine?

The standard reaction is that it is disgusting. But why? Why is human urine disgusting? Clearly, we have strong cultural feelings against urine. I suppose many cultures do, although I’ve not researched it. But what do cultural stances have to do with the crucifix, which represents Christ’s sacrifice of himself for our sins? Not being repelled by urine is not a sin; urologists go to heaven too. And remember that Christ’s sacrifice is unlimited in its effect. Only those who turn from his offer are not supposed to be saved, and I gather that there is even debate about the permanence of their exclusion.

Think of this another way: Christ is willing to get into our beings no matter how repugnant our sins are. A carafe of urine – which is, after all, a natural product of our bodies – is not in the same category of vileness as sin. So why shouldn’t Christ be in the urine? Could there be some natural substance that could repel Christ? I can’t see how Christian doctrine could accept that.

So, the meaning I take from Serrano’s picture is that Christ is willing to go places where we aren’t. That his love transcends mundane concepts of ugliness. That the perfection of his sacrifice is far greater than any sacrifices we are willing to make, because it is extended everywhere and to everyone. This strikes me as a profound statement of Christian belief.

This sort of reaction is not just mine. For example, Leo Steinberg, in The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and In Modern Oblivion, puts Serrano is a tradition of artists coping with the humanity of the incarnation. In a review in oldSpeak, Joshua Anderson talks to Steinberg’s interpretation of the display of Christ’s genitalia, mostly in his baby pictures.
The emphasis on Christ’s sex, he writes, is meant to underscore his biblical humanity. Indeed, the paradoxical nature of Christ’s incarnation, his simultaneous divinity and humanity, has always existed in tension throughout Christian history… Displaying the masculinity of Christ was not the only way the artists instructed their audiences—Steinberg also shows paintings where the Christ Child stares out from the painting while nursing on the Madonna’s fully displayed breast, and others which focus on the circumcision of the infant Messiah. “Look,” the Renaissance artists seem to be saying to us, "consider the mystery and wonder of the Incarnation. See how the God-child’s body is like a man’s in every way. See how he suckles at his mother’s breast. See how he bawls when his blood is shed.”
In talking of Serrano’s message, Anderson says:
Serrano must have known that he was speaking a particular cultural language by mixing urine and Christ, one that was certainly intended to offend. So, although the righteous indignation of evangelicals is certainly justified, if one can look past the obvious mockery of Christ, there is, ironically, a subtle (and almost certainly unwitting) affirmation of the profoundly good news of the Incarnation… In contrast, Serrano’s mixture of Christ and urine is offensive, but not unbiblical, unless one holds to the Gnostic belief that Jesus was not completely human; indeed bodily functions are necessitated by concept of “the Word made flesh.”

In reality, the offensiveness of Piss Christ is due at least somewhat to the patently unbiblical nature of much current Christian art. That is, the submersion of Christ in a jar of urine is offensive to evangelicals at least partly because the humiliation and scandal of the Incarnation is, in practical terms, typically ignored in contemporary evangelical art.… Serrano provides an accurate understanding of the reality of the incarnate God; in his overt attempt at mockery, he establishes an important contrast to the candy-coated Christ found in most Christian bookstores.
Elissa, in animated marginalia, makes a similar point:
Do we really believe that God became man and participated in all the disgusting, filthy, and thoroughly human stuff that makes up our daily existence? If so, if we do believe in a humiliated Christ, then Serrano's work can actually become convicting... even devotional. God Incarnate means God wallowing in our waste. What if this image was not an attack on our faith, but a challenge to those who claim it? What if we failed? What if we, too, have a history of refusing an insulted Savior?
And, in part of a very dense, deconstructist assessment in Arts & Opinion, Damien Casey writes:
God's place is with the abject every bit as much as it is on the high altar of the cathedral. Yes, the crucifix as a triumphant symbol is a delicious irony in keeping with the spirit of the gospels. But that irony is lost when we forget its strong association with both ignominy and abjection. Then it merely becomes a sign of domination.

Serrano’s Intentions: I think that there is little or no direct evidence that Serrano produced Piss Christ purely for its offensive effect. Serrano was not been very forthcoming about his motivation in producing the piece, preferring to let the discussion proceed without him. Eventually, though, he wrote an open letter to the NEA. In an excerpt published by animated marginalia, he says:
The photograph, and the title itself, are ambiguously provocative but certainly not blasphemous. Over the years, I have addressed religion regularly in my art. My Catholic upbringing informs this work which helps me to redefine and personalize my relationship with God. My use of such bodily fluids as blood and urine in this context is parallel to Catholicism's obsession with "the body and blood of Christ." It is precisely in the exploration and juxtaposition of the symbols from which Christianity draws it strength.
Amy Peterson, at Drexel University, reported that the work was well within the context of Serrano’s other photos:
Some of his earlier works were quite abstract, involving the mixing of blood, milk, and urine. Serrano feels that these works are important because they were "going against the grain of photography in the sense that there's no perspective or spatial relationships. There's a flatness of color and material and subject matter."

As he progressed, he began to place objects he would find at flea markets in the bodily fluids. These photographs include Piss Mary, Piss Christ, and Piss Last Supper, in which statues of Mary, Christ, and Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper" were immersed in urine.

Serrano contends that his work Piss Chris would not have caused as much controversy if it weren't for the title. He claims that he meant no disrespect. However, he titled the piece in the same manner that he titled all of the works of the period: a description of the object seen as well as the liquid it was submerged in.
Bill Seeley, in a review in Metapsychology of Cynthia Freeland’s But Is It Art?, notes that
Serrano contends that the work was not intended to denounce religion, but rather to point to the manner in which contemporary culture is commercializing and cheapening Christian icons.
And finally, in an interview with Coco Fusco, in the Fall 1991 issue of High Performance magazine, Serrano says:
My work has social implications, it functions in a social arena. In relation to the controversy over Piss Christ, I think the work was politicized by forces outside it, and as a result, some people expect to see something recognizably "political" in my work. I am still trying to do my work as I see fit, which I see as coming from a very personal point of view with broader implications.

So, dragging Piss Christ into the debate over the Danish Mohammed cartoons, as a putative example of how it’s OK to bash Christian symbols in the liberal West, ignores the evidence of aesthetics, meaning, and intent, that it is legitimate art.