Thursday, March 28, 2013

Plato's Passover

Apart from its other potential benefits in areas such as ethics and spirituality, religion can lead to important insights associated with a media ecology perspective. 

For example, in Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman mentions how he learned about the Ten Commandments of Moses as a child, presumably in Hebrew School, and was particularly taken with the Second Commandment's prohibition against graven images of any kind, independent of their content, which in practical terms can be said to be the first historical expression of a media ecology approach.

For Walter Ong, as a Jesuit priest learning about religious traditions, he explains how a big breakthrough came for him when he realized that the emphasis on the visual sense, which has it roots in the literate culture of ancient Greece, is not present in the literate culture of ancient Israel, and that a high degree of residual orality persists in Jewish religious tradition, to this day. The visualism that first started to coalesce in Greece and Rome did not fully come to dominant western culture until after the printing revolution begun in the 15th century, but from that point on, it is integral to all that is, or was, distinctive about modern western culture.

Now, Ong and Postman, along with other media ecology scholars such as Marshall McLuhan, have identified Plato's Phaedrus  as including the first form of scholarship in the field of media ecology, insofar as that dialogue includes some discussion of the differences between speech and writing as modes of communication. That discussion is supplemented by further observation in Plato's Seventh Letter.

So now, with all that in mind, I was particularly interested to see a blog post entitled Plato, the Haggada and the Art of Reading written by Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo of the David Cardozo Academy in Jerusalem. The post appeared on March 14, in advance of the Passover holiday, and begins like this:

Now that Jews all over the world will once again assemble around the Seder table and read the Haggada—the story of the exodus from Egypt—it may be worthwhile to put some thought into the art of reading.

In The Phaedrus (275a-278a) and in his Seventh Letter (344c), Plato questioned—and in fact attacked—the written word as being completely inadequate. This may explain why philosophers have scarcely written about the art of writing, although they extensively engaged in that very craft!

It is well known that Plato used to write in the form of dialogues, and it is clear to anyone reading these conversations that his main purpose in doing so was to hide the characteristics of the texts. He worked for years on polishing this literary form. Cicero maintains that Plato actually died at his writing table at the age of eighty one. “Plato uno et octogesimo anno scribens est mortuus.” (1)

The footnote reads: "Cicero, 'On Old Age,' Section 5." And let me note at this point that within the dialogue, it is Socrates who takes this position, and there is at least some question as to whether these are arguments made by Socrates, who left us no written works and appears to us as a champion of orality. Is Plato a reporter, in this sense, relating what Socrates said, or is Socrates just a literary character, a mouthpiece for Plato's own thought? Whether the truth lies more in one direction or another, we can assume that the concerns expressed were those of Plato, but also note the irony that he did in fact put them into writing, or else we would never have known about them.

Okay, back to Rabbi Cardozo...

What bothered Plato was that he believed the written word would fall prey to evil or incompetent readers who would do anything they want with the text, leaving the writer unable to defend or explain himself. He feared the text would take on a life of its own, independent of its author, as is indeed characteristic of the written word. Even more interesting is his observation that a written text actually becomes a “pharmakon”—a drug that can either heal or kill, depending on how it is applied. It may even be used as a prompt, but will ultimately lead to memory loss since it will make the brain idle. Years later, Immanuel Kant wrote along similar lines, saying that the “script” wreaked havoc on the “body of memory.” (2)

This second footnote reads: "Immanuel Kant, Anthropologie in Pragmatischer Hinsicht, Suhrkamp, STW 193, Frankfurt am Main, p 489-490." The point about memory is well-taken, of course, and speaks to the fundamental notion of use it or lose it. But beyond memory is the gradual erosion and loss of mnemotechy, of mnemonic techniques that were developed in oral cultures, and continued to be used and supplemented in scribal cultures. That's on the technical side, but Rabbi Cardozo points to a different aspect of memory:

However, according to Plato, this means far more than just losing information, or being deprived of the skill of memorizing. For him, real knowledge was a matter of “intrinsic understanding,” demanding a person’s total presence within what he reads or says. Only that with which I totally identify and which has become united with my Self can be called knowledge and is in-scribed in my whole personality. That which I have simply read or learned superficially is not really knowledge.

This is an important point as well.   We learn, memorize, internalize with our whole body. Ong refers to the Jesuit scholar Marcel Jousse who used the term "verbomotor lifestyle" to refer to this involvement of the whole body. In Jewish tradition, in praying and also in studying Talmud (which Ong mentions), individuals daven, a Hebrew word with the connotation of rocking back and forth, although the denotative meaning is pray. One of our most important prayers, the V'Ahavta (which comes from the book of Deuteronomy) begins with, "And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might." In other words, with complete involvement of body, mind, and spirit. And getting back to the point about memory, McLuhan's colleague, Edmund Carpenter, noted that we use the phrase, learning by heart, where heart is a metaphor for the body—it's not just a mental activity.

Alright then, it's time now for Rabbi Cardozo to apply this understanding to the Jewish observance of Passover:

Unwittingly, Plato touched on a most fundamental aspect of the Jewish Tradition. We Jews are called “the people of the book.” But we are not; we are the people of the ear. The Torah is not to be read, but rather is to be heard. It was not written in the conventional sense. It was the Divine word spoken at Sinai, which had to be heard and which afterwards, out of pure necessity, became frozen in a text, but with the sole intention of being immediately “defrosted” through the art of hearing. This, then, became the great foundation of the Jewish Oral Tradition. 

This brings up some interesting points about what went on with God and Moses according to the Torah. My understanding is that God wrote the Torah down on stone tablets, typically depicted as the Ten Commandments, but the Torah has 613 laws all told, plus the narrative that makes up the Five Books of Moses. Traditionally, it's said that the entire Torah was delivered in this way, but whatever it consisted of, the story has it that Moses threw the tablets down when he saw the Israelites worshiping the golden calf, so that they were broken into fragments, then went back up the mount, and the second time around God dictated them and Moses wrote them down in his own hand.

But there's more! By the time of the Roman conquest of Judah, which they renamed Judea, there were two groups vying for dominance . One, the Sadducees, who were members of the upper class, including the priests who controlled the Second Temple, only acknowledged the written law as found in the Torah as a document. The other group was the Pharisees, from whom Rabbinic Judaism emerged, and who have been unfairly maligned within the Christian New Testament (especially given the fact that much of what Jesus says in the New Testament is essentially an extreme Pharisaic position). The Pharisees argued that in addition to the written Torah, God also gave Moses the oral Torah, which is the tradition of oral interpretation of the written text. This allowed for much greater flexibility, and from this comes the document known as the Talmud, which is a written record of that oral tradition.

But note that it is an oral tradition quite different from the oral tradition we associate with oral cultures, but rather an oral tradition that responds to a written text. The answer to Plato's criticism that a text cannot answer questions is this act of interpretation. That is the role of the teacher, and that is what is meant by a rabbi, or in eastern tradition a guru, someone who can speak for, answer for, and interpret a text.

All right now, let's return to Rabbi Cardozo and the distinction between seeing and hearing:

Reading entails using one’s eyes and, as such, the act remains external. The words are not carved into the very soul of the reader. Rabbi Yaakov Leiner, son of the famous Ishbitzer Rebbe, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner, and one of the keenest minds in the Chassidic tradition, speaks about seeing. He makes the valuable observation that sight discloses the external aspect of things while hearing reveals the internal. (3) One must hear a text, not read it. This is the reason why the body of Torah consists of minimum words and maximum oral interpretation.

Footnote 3 reads: "Rabbi Yaacov Leiner, Beis Yaakov: Rosh Chodesh Av." And this is a very important point. Vision gives us exteriors. Voice comes from inside us, with the breath of life, so that the interior is exteriorized, and then internalized again through the act of hearing.

Now, let's return to Rabbi Cardozo and the question of the Talmud as oral tradition:

Still, does the open-endedness of the Torah not present the opportunity for anyone to read his own thoughts into the text and violate its very spirit? The Jewish Tradition responded to this challenge with great profundity. It created an ongoing oral tradition in which unwritten rules of interpretation were handed down, thereby securing the inner meaning of the text while at the same time allowing the student to use all of his creative imagination. Even after the Oral Torah was written down in the form of the Talmud, it remained unwritten, as any Talmud student can testify. No other text is so succinct and “understaffed” in written words while simultaneously given to such vast interpretation. The fact that the art of reading the Talmud can only be learned through a teacher–student relationship, and not merely through the written word, proves our point. Only when the student hears his master’s oral interpretation of the text is he able to read it, because the teacher will not only give him explanations but will also convey the inner vibrations that were once heard at the revelation on Mount Sinai. This is the deeper knowledge that the teacher received from his masters, taking him all the way back to the supreme moment at Sinai. In that way, the student can free himself from a mechanical approach to the text. He will hear new voices in the old text, without deviating from its inner meaning. This will give him the courage to think on his own and rid himself of prejudice. The text, then, is not read but heard.

Given our visualist tradition in the west, we tend to assume that reading means reading silently to ourselves, which transforms us into isolated individuals. Reading out loud binds us together as an audience and community, it creates a relationship, whether it is teacher-student, parent-child, or from a religious perspective, God and humanity. Interpretation, an open approach to meaning-making, is linked to a social, relational approach to understanding, and in some sense in constructing our view of the world, our reality.

At this point, you might be asking, what does all this have to do with Passover. And well you should ask because here is what Rabbi Cardozo has to say:

Jewish law states that even if one is alone on the Seder night, one must pronounce the text of the Haggada and not just read it. He must hear himself, explain the text to himself in a verbal way, and be in continuous dialogue with himself so as to understand and feel what happened thousands of years ago. Plato alluded to this matter without fully realizing why his own teachings never came close to receiving the treatment they perhaps deserved. They are read too much and heard too little.

 As someone who has made a career in higher education, I must note that this has profound implications for education in general, and Postman emphasized the importance of a balance between the spoken and written word that was achieved in the classroom, and how reliance on electronic technologies for teaching might disrupt that balance. If nothing else, it is a point to consider, as is the point about reading out loud even if we are by ourselves, to enter into a dialogue with ourselves.  And from a religious point of view, we are never completely alone, are we?

In that respect, Rabbi Cardozo continues with a discussion of the spiritual dimension of all this:

This may be the difference between the Divine word and the human word. The Divine is a dimension where words have no spiritual space. Human words are too grounded in the text. The Divine word goes beyond these textual limitations and can find its way only through the act of listening, because it is through this particular one of our senses that we are able to hear the “perpetual murmur from the waves beyond the shore.” (4)

The footnote reads: "Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976) p. 8." The reference to spiritual space in this passage is quite interesting. Whether the space is sacred or profane, writing fixes and freezes language in space. While space is perceived through all the senses, it is most closely connected to vision. Visual space is distinct from acoustic space, a realization central to McLuhan's media ecology (and that of Carpenter as well). But sound is best understood with respect to time rather than space. Sound is an event, a happening, as Ong reminds us, sound is ephemeral and only exists as it is going out of existence. And Ong too notes the intimate connection between the oral-aural world and the sacred.

Rabbi Cardozo concludes with the following:

When we read the text on the Seder night, we should be aware that it only provides the opening words. The real Haggada has no text. It is not to be read, but is rather to be heard. And just as with the Torah, we have not even begun to understand its full meaning. We are simply perpetual beginners.

This is a wonderful sentiment, that we are all learners, all seekers. Jack Goody makes this point about religious understanding in oral cultures, that it is about being a seeker rather than about adhering to fixed dogma. Put another way, the sacred text and the oral tradition are media environments, and as environments they are too vast to fully comprehend or map, but they are open to ongoing exploration.

Rabbi Cardozo ends his post with, "moadim le-simcha," which means happy holidays, and I would like to return the sentiment to him, "chag sameach" (another Hebrew phrase meaning happy holiday), and happy holidays to people of good will of all faiths and beliefs.

Monday, March 25, 2013

To Go the Distance for Autism

You may remember last year's post on this topic, Going the Distance for Autism?  And perhaps you also heard about the latest estimate reported by the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention, that puts the autism rate at 1 out of 50 children, up from 1 out of 88 just one year ago! When my daughter first was diagnosed, almost a decade and a half ago, the rate was only 1 out of 1000, although soon after it was revised to 1 out of 500!

I should add that whatever the rate is nationwide, it's always much higher in New Jersey, where I live. Part of the reason may have to do with the environment and all of the heavy industry that the state was associated with. But another reason is that New Jersey offers the best services and schools for children with autism, so many families move here when one of their children is diagnosed.

The statistics are shocking! Unbelievable! But terribly, tragically true! And don't forget that children with autism will grow up to be adults with autism. It's a social time bomb about to go off. And I don't think even Obamacare has much in the way of provisions for that eventuality. But whatever problems adults with autism may have to deal with, or that we as a society will have to deal with on their behalf, they will be intensely magnified if they don't get the help they need, beginning in early childhood, as they are growing up.

So, while there are many different ways in which the problem needs to be addressed, one of most important things that anyone can do to help is to support the specialized schools that give children with autism the best chance of leading happy and productive lives. A group of these schools in the New Jersey/New York Metropolitan Area have banded together to raise money for autism education through the annual Go the Distance for Autism fundraiser.

You can help too, if you're so inclined, by visiting my daughter Sarah's page. Just click here. But I'll also share with you what it says over on her page.

Sarah's First Day at EPIC and Sarah Today

Sarah turned 17 a few months ago. Unlike other girls her age, she isn't looking forward to high school graduation, or looking at colleges. She isn't talking about boys, or fashion, or athletics, or any of the many things that teenagers care for. She doesn't talk on the phone or update her status on Facebook or go hang out with her friends.

Because Sarah has autism, we don't have to worry about her going out with other teens, about where she might be going and what she might be doing. But we do worry about what will become of her, about how she will get along as adult, especially when we're no longer around to take care of her. And we worry about her seizures, which come every so often despite the medication she takes. And we worry about her when she's not feeling well, and can't tell us what's wrong.

We worry, but we know that Sarah has made great progress over the years, and continues to do so, working hard with the help of her teachers at EPIC School.

Now, as a 17-year-old, with the help of her teachers at EPIC School, she is learning how to use money, wash dishes, send a text on a cell phone. With the help of her teachers at EPIC School, she goes to Target to practice making a purchase on her own, and goes out to lunch with her classmate Gina every Friday, and orders her own meal. the help of her teachers at EPIC School, she takes part in a supported work program in the community, unpacking boxes, putting clothes on hangers, doing office work. the help of her teachers at EPIC School, Sarah is learning what she needs to know to be a productive citizen, take care of herself to the best of her ability, and live a fulfilling life.

With you help, EPIC will continue to help children with autism like Sarah, children who desperately need the intensive type of assistance that only these kinds of schools can provide. With your help, EPIC will be able to launch an adult program for children like Sarah, for when they turn 21 and age out of the educational system. With your help, Sarah and her classmates will have a chance to live happy and productive lives, which is all that any of us can ask for. With your help. Won't you help?

Having shared that with you, once again you can visit Sarah's page to donate or participate, and any support that you can give, not matter how much, is greatly appreciated. And, of course, please do so only if you are able to, financially and otherwise. Thank you!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Piece of Pi

So, today is Pi Day, being 3-14, and more so, Palindromic Pi Day, being 3-14-13! That's certainly an interesting bit of memery (memeosity?), given that this special occasion was all but unheard before Y2K (remember Y2K?). My guess is that with the millennium, much more attention was paid to dates with interesting numerological qualities, like the recent 12/12/12, the last of its kind until the next century! 

Pi Day also reflects something of a technological mindset, that is a digital sensitivity brought about by the ubiquity of computers, smart devices, and internet connectivity, and the type of techie competence that makes this brave new world go round. Not that there's anything wrong with it, mind you!

But lest you think that it's all math and science and tech, and no art and music, please allow me to remind you that such separations are artificial, and did not exist in antiquity, certainly not among the old Greeks who gave Pi it's name, or rather initial (although ∏ wasn't actually assigned to the value until the 18th century). 

In fact, there are some folks who attempted to turn Pi into a musical composition. Here's one by Michael Blake:

Rather lovely, don't you think? By the way, here's a Pi Chart:

A rather amusing visual pun, don't you agree? And guaranteed to give you Pi strain, er, I mean eye strain.  Speaking of strain, let's trade an eye for an ear, but first, listen to what the composer of the piece I'm about to share, Carlos Manuel, writes about it over on YouTube:

There has been many attempts to make a conversion of the digits of Pi to musical notes, but I noticed that the methods used were pretty unrealistic. What they were doing was to convert the 10 digits of the decimal system in 10 notes, and then play them. Of course that doesn't make any sense because our musical notation has 12 notes! So I converted the digits of Pi to the duodecimal system (Base 12), and made a program to play it. Here are the results.

And here they are:

Quite the contrast with the previous piece of Pi, don't you agree? Did you listen to it in its entirety? Well, you might ask, what if you dialed Pi to a 1,000 places as a phone number, and added a bit of extra rhythm in the background? The results are not too bad:

And here's a rather interesting YouTube lecture combined with another take on Pi melodies by one Professor Philip Moriarity (no shoot, Sherlock!):

We may all be coded somewhere in Pi! What a conclusion! Now, here's a rather sweet version, with a synthesized, classical feel that I'd associated with Keith Emerson or Rick Wakeman of Yes:

 In the write-up, the composer suggests that, because Pi existed before the human race evolved, and for that matter before life itself originated, this is the oldest song that you might ever hear!  Whether you believe that or not, one thing is for sure, that Pi music can take many forms:

Well, this is just a sampling of the many versions of musical Pi that are out there. But how about something from the movie Pi. No not, Life of Pi, but the 1998 film written and directed by Darren Aronofsky. Here's the trailer:

Now, there's some media and formal cause for ya (note the plug for the book by Marshall and Eric McLuhan, easily ordered from the box over on the right). So anyway, I hope you had a happy Pi Day!

And what's left to say, but...  3.141592653589793238462643383279 5028841971 6939937510 5820974944 5923078164 0628620899 8628034825 3421170679 8214808651 3282306647 0938446095 5058223172 5359408128 4811174502 8410270193 8521105559 6446229489 5493038196 4428810975 6659334461 2847564823 3786783165 2712019091 4564856692 3460348610 4543266482 1339360726 0249141273 7245870066 0631558817 4881520920 9628292540 9171536436 7892590360 0113305305 4882046652 1384146951 9415116094 3305727036 5759591953 0921861173 8193261179 3105118548 0744623799 6274956735 1885752724 8912279381 8301194912 9833673362 4406566430 8602139494 6395224737 1907021798 6094370277 0539217176 2931767523 8467481846 7669405132 0005681271 4526356082 7785771342 7577896091 7363717872 1468440901 2249534301 4654958537 1050792279 6892589235 4201995611 2129021960 8640344181 5981362977 4771309960 5187072113 4999999837 2978049951 0597317328 1609631859 5024459455 3469083026 4252230825 3344685035 2619311881 7101000313 7838752886 5875332083 8142061717 7669147303 5982534904 2875546873 1159562863 8823537875 9375195778 1857780532 1712268066 1300192787 6611195909 2164201989 

et cetera...

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Secondhand Gun Smoke

It's time again for me to share one of my guest posts written for the Hannah Arendt Center's blog, as part of the Quote of the Week feature, this one appearing on February 11th, and thanks again to Bridget Hollenback for providing the illustrations. My previous contributions, in reverse chronological order, are The Deprivations of Privacy, History and Freedom, We Create the Conditions that Condition Us, Charlie Chaplin and Hannah Arendt, and see also an earlier post entitled  Arendt Come Due.

And as you no doubt gather from the title of this post, this builds on previous posts here on Blog Time Passing on the issue of gun control, such as On Guns and More and Human Sacrifice and the False Idol of Firearms, as well as Machine Gun Moloch.  

"The extreme form of power is All against One, the extreme form of violence is One against All. And this latter is never possible without instruments."

Hannah Arendt, On Violence

The instruments that Hannah Arendt refers to in this quote are instruments of violence, that is to say, weapons.  Weapons, which in the main, translates to firearms, make it possible for One to commit acts of violence against All. And this fact has been brought into sharp focus in light of the devastating tragedy of this past December 14th, 2012:  the massacre of 20 young children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut by a 20-year-old man using a semi-automatic assault rifle that belonged to his mother, the first victim of a killing spree that ended when he turned his weapon on himself and took his own life. The extreme depravity of this incident sent shockwaves throughout the nation, and reports of subsequent shootings of a more commonplace variety have been picked up by the news media, whereas previously they have more often than not been ignored. Fulfilling their function as agenda-setters, journalists have placed gun violence high on the list of national debates, reflecting the outrage of many citizens, as well as the genuine concern of a significant number of leaders and officials in government and organized religion.

Despite the fact that many citizens find the status quo intolerable, and favor legislation that would increase the limitations on the types of weaponry citizens can legally purchase and own, and on the requirements for sale and ownership of firearms, there has been considerable opposition to any form of what is commonly referred to as gun control. That pushback had come from what is sometimes referred to as the gun lobby, the National Rifle Association being the primary organization representing the firearms industry, and citizens who insist that our constitution's second amendment guarantees them the freedom to arm themselves as they see fit. And whereas one side mostly speaks in the language of moderation, arguing for reasonable restrictions on firearms sales, the other tends to speak in an extremist language of absolutes, arguing against any abridgement of rights and freedom, maintaining that gun control legislation is completely ineffective, and that, in the words of NRA Vice-President Wayne LaPierre, "the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."

Fighting fire with fire is not a method favored by firefighters, except in the most extreme of circumstances, and likewise fighting firearms with firearms is a tactic of last resort for putting an end to gun violence. Firefighters stress the importance of prevention, and we certainly are entitled to ask, how can we prevent a bad guy from getting hold of a gun in the first place? When prevention is ineffective, and violence ensues, it may be necessary to engage in further violence as a countermeasure. But even if the result is cessation rather than escalation, the situation already represents a failure and breakdown of the community. As Arendt explains,

the danger of violence, even if it moves consciously within a nonextremist framework of short-term goals, will always be that the means overwhelm the end. If goals are not achieved rapidly, the result will be not merely defeat but the introduction of the practice of violence into the whole body politic. Action is irreversible, and a return to the status quo in case of defeat is always unlikely. The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is to a more violent world.

LaPierre's insistence that the only way to stop violence is with violence is not only simplistic in his childish morality of good guys vs. bad guys, but in his view of the situation as being One against One. Again, it would certainly be reasonable to concede the point that violent action on the part of one individual is sometimes required to put an end to violent action on the part of another individual, and such action is authorized on the part of duly appointed representatives of the law, e.g., police. But in acting in the role of police, such individuals are acting as representatives of the All, so that what appears to be One against One is in fact a case of All against One.  But LaPierre's notion of a good guy with a gun is not a police officer—indeed police departments typically favor stricter gun control—but an armed private citizen. In other words, his One against One would exist in a larger context of All against All, everyone armed in defense against everyone else, everyone prepared to engage in violence against everyone else.

That guns are instruments of violence ought to be clear. You cannot cut a steak with a gun. You cannot chop wood with a gun. You cannot excavate a mine with a gun. Unlike knives, axes, and even explosives, firearms have no practical use other than to harm and kill living things. There are recreational applications, granted, but there is nothing new about violence in recreational activities, boxing, wrestling, and fencing all have their origins in antiquity, while eastern martial arts disciplines have grown quite popular in the United States over the past half century, and football has become our most popular sport. It follows that hunting is simply another violent recreational activity, as we are now 10,000 years past the agricultural revolution, and few if any of us live in the wilderness as nomadic hunter-gatherers.  And target ranges, skeet shooting, and the like, all of which use obvious surrogates for human and animal bodies, are essentially recreational activities, apart from their function in training individuals  how to use firearms.

Instruments of violence, like all tools, are made to be used, and their violence cannot be confined to prescribed targets and situations. So with All against All, everyone lives under the shadow of violence, the possibility of being fired upon serving as a guarantee against bad behavior. From the individual's point of view, everyone is suspect, everyone is a potential menace that must be guarded against. And of course the danger they pose is greatly amplified if they are bearing arms. So peace is achieved through mutual intimidation, and at best a respect based on threat and fear. Under these circumstances, there is no solid foundation for political action based on consensus and cooperation, let alone social cohesion. With All against All, the potential for action taken by All against One is minimized.

Reducing if not eliminating the potential for All against One is central to the ideology of the NRA, for whom the All is not so much everyone else as it is our representatives in positions of authority. Armed private citizens are the good guys with guns, and it is not only the "criminals and crazies" who are bad guys, but also, and perhaps more importantly, the government. Ignoring the fact that historically, the second amendment was understood as granting individual states in the union the right to create militias in the absence of a standing federal army, gun advocates invoke "the right to bear arms" as a check against government tyranny, insisting that they are entitled to the same right to revolution that was claimed by the founders of our nation in the Declaration of Independence. That the Confederate states invoked the same right in seceding from the Union, igniting a debate settled by the most violent of means, is of little import it seems. The Civil War apparently did not end with Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, but merely underwent a transformation into a subtle insurgency movement that continues to this day. This no doubt comes as a surprise to the vast majority of American citizens, including the multitudes that flocked to movie theaters in recent months to see Steven Spielberg's Lincoln.

Arendt drives home the point that violence exists in inverse relationship to power.  Power is derived from the All, from the consent and agreement of the governed, the source of political legitimacy. Power is the ability to achieve goals without the use of violence. When governments are forced to resort to violence, it reflects a loss of power, one that is difficult to reclaim, and may ultimately result in that governments demise. Violence can destroy power, that is the lesson of revolution, but it cannot create power, only political action can. It follows that gun advocates see the second amendment as curbing the power of government, thereby empowering the individual. That sense of power is something of a chimera, however, for as soon as firearms are used, their power dissipates. If they are used against another private citizen, even a so-called bad guy, the user will have to answer to the legal system, and may be found guilty of unlawful action, or subject to civil liability. If they are used against a government official, the user will sooner or later discover that he (or she, but almost always it is a he) is outgunned, that One against All may only succeed in the short-term but will eventually fall to the vastly superior firepower of organized authorities.

American society, like all societies, looks to a set of values that, upon close inspection, holds logical contradictions, values that, from a distance, appear to be psychologically consistent with each other. We value the individual, and adhere to the most extreme form of individualism of any western society, but we also value the community. We seek a balance between the two, but ultimately they come in conflict with one another, the One vs. the All.  And we value freedom, but we also value equality. Both seem fundamental, but freedom includes the freedom to excel, to dominate, to gain an advantage, enforce and reinforce inequity, while any effort to be truly egalitarian requires restrictions on those freedoms. Moreover, we believe in capitalism, free enterprise as it were, but also in democracy, the American way, politically-speaking, and we assume the two can co-exist without discord. But capitalism is inherently undemocratic, favoring oligarchies and the absence of government regulation and oversight, whereas the exercise of democracy extends to policies that affect and constrain economic and financial activities, and the organization and conduct of business.
In the past, Americans have slightly favored the individual, freedom, and capitalism, all of which are aligned with one another, over the community, equality, and democracy, although the emphasis has shifted somewhat depending on circumstances (for example, during wartime, we become increasingly more likely to rally around the values of community and equality, and belief in democracy). To put it into Arendt's more succinct terms, we try to find a balance between the One and the All, but to the extent that the two are in conflict, we lean a bit towards the One.

In favoring the One, we tolerate the One against All, the result being that we are scarred by gun violence to a degree vastly out of proportion with other western societies. For gun advocates, gun ownership is an individual right and an essential freedom that must not be abridged. Never mind the fact that "the right to bear arms" is rarely found on any listing of basic human rights, as opposed to the right to live in safety and security, free from fear and threat, a right that gun ownership jeopardizes at least as much as it protects. And never mind the fact that our first amendment freedoms are subject to significant limitations and governed by legislation, and those freedoms are listed in a clear and unequivocal manner, in contrast to the second amendment's convoluted and confused diction ("A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed"). It is also interesting to note that gun advocates like LaPierre do not hesitate to try to shift the focus onto the first amendment, blaming violence in film, television programming, and videogames for incidents like the Newtown shooting. And what is often downplayed is that the gun lobby, in resisting all attempts at gun control, are defending the interests of the gun industry, the businesses that manufacture, distribute, and sell firearms. Of course, it is hard to play up the importance of free enterprise in the wake of the murder of elementary school children.
In their radical views on the second amendment, and their absolute embrace of individual freedom and capitalism against the interests of community, equality, and democracy, gun ideologues like LaPierre insist on the supremacy of One against All, and it is not surprising that the result is an extreme form of violence.  And, as I noted earlier, leaders representing the interests of the All against the One tend to speak, naturally enough, in the language of practical politics operating within a democratic form of government, the language of negotiation and compromise, but find themselves confronted on the other side with the abstract absolutes characteristic of the language of ideology. You might say, what we got here is a failure to communicate, in the words of Cool Hand Luke, although the two sides probably understand each other better than they let on.

The ideologues know that if they refuse to blink first, the compromisers will most likely give up and move on to more pressing matters. And the compromisers know that the ideologues refusal to negotiate gives them an excuse to turn away from a divisive issue that may cost them a measure of support in the next election, and deal with more pressing matters with a greater probability of reaching a successful conclusion. Only now, after Newtown, is there talk of having reached a tipping point in public opinion, one that may pressure the compromisers to insist upon a settlement, and may force the ideologues to accept the pragmatic need for negotiation. The likely outcome is that the ideologues will make some minor concessions, allowing for some small progress on gun control, a step in the right direction to be sure, but a far cry from the measures needed to curb the high incidence of gun violence in the United States.

Change will come, because the alternative is intolerable. To the extent that we live in increasingly denser populated areas, in urban sprawl rather than rural isolation, so that the consequences of violent action become increasingly more catastrophic, we require more civilized, more civil living conditions, the insurance against violence that can only come from the power of organized authority subject to political oversight, not private citizens responsible only to themselves. To live in a society of All against All is ultimately regressive, and can only make sense if the social system disintegrates, a remote possibility that cannot be balanced against the actuality of incident after incident of gun violence.

Change will come, but it may only come gradually, given our cultural bias towards the One against All, and it may only come generationally.  Over the past half century, Americans have become increasingly more risk aversive, as more information about potential risks to health and safety have been made available through the electronic media. However, as Henry Perkinson argues in No Safety in Numbers, it is the risks that we have no control over that we are particularly averse to. When the risk is perceived as a matter of individual choice, an expression of personal freedom, we are less averse to it than when it is understood to fall outside of our locus of control. Prohibition is often invoked as the archetype of failed measures to eliminate harmful behavior, and the word prohibition is often thrown into discussions on gun control and similar measures in order to summon up those negative connotations. Despite the potential risks to health and safety from alcoholic inebriation, over-consumption, and addiction, drinking was seen as an exercise of free will, and therefore acceptable. It was only with the campaign against drinking and driving that the locus of risk was shifted from the individual consuming intoxicating beverages to the innocent victims of drunk driving, accident victims who had no choice in the matter, whose freedom was in fact curtailed by the drinker. The same is true of tobacco.

Once medical research established that smoking causes emphysema, heart disease, and cancer, modest change in American smoking habits ensued. It was not until the findings about secondhand smoke were established that real cultural change took place, a truly extraordinary shift in attitudes and behavior about smoking. The key was that secondhand smoke exposed individuals to risks that they had no control over, risks that they were subjected to against their own volition.

While this form of risk-aversion is relatively recent, a more basic understanding that permeates American society is that individuals can exercise their freedoms as long as those freedoms do not jeopardize others. The early assertion of a right to own slaves could only persist insofar as individuals were willing to view the enslaved as somehow less than fully human; otherwise the freedom to enslave clearly cannot justify the denial of another individual's freedom. Similarly, free enterprise and free markets, the freedom of individuals to engage in any kind of business and labor practices they might chose to, eventually was understood to conflict with the rights of labor, of workers and employees, as well as the rights of consumers, so that the freedom of capitalism is subject to constraints imposed in the interests of the community and democracy.

In the face of the violence of One against All, what is needed is the power, in the positive sense of democratic political action, of All against One. The power of public opinion and a growing consensus will serve as a bulletproof vest to protect the body politic from assault by the weapons industry and gun ideologues. And the best place to begin is by talking about the dangers that uncontrolled access to firearms pose to citizens who do not choose to live with these instruments of violence, citizens whose freedoms and rights and very lives are put at risk without their consent, citizens who all are victims of secondhand gun smoke.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Of Patterns and Parabolas

So, I've been thinking a bit about formal cause, thinking inspired by the book by Marshall and Eric McLuhan, Media and Formal Cause, which I've discussed here before, notably in a post entitled, appropriately enough,  Media and Formal Cause, and do note that the book can be ordered directly from Amazon by one of those widgets over on the right.

So, anyway, not too long ago I completed an essay on the subject for a book project I'm working on with fellow media ecologists Robert K. Logan and Corey Anton, and I'll share more about the project here when the time comes, which it hasn't, not yet. And I'm not going to post the essay here, sorry about that, but I did want to share some thoughts.

One aspect of formal cause involves pattern recognition, a mode of perception and way of knowing that Marshall McLuhan stresses in Understanding Media.  Pattern recognition is especially needed, McLuhan argues, with the speeding up of communications, because it becomes harder and harder to engage in linear and analytical, step-by-step thought processes. When information is coming at you rapidly, there's no time to think things over, and you have to employ a different, more intuitive or right-brained, holistic form of perception. 

In my own experience, playing first generation video games like Space Invaders, Missile Command, and Galaxian helped me to fully understand pattern recognition as it relates to electronic media. It's the idea of being immersed inside an environment, rather than objectively distanced from a scene, which corresponds to McLuhan's notions of acoustic space (which surrounds us) and visual space (in which we are an outsider looking in).

Pattern recognition is holistic, in playing video games it meant not focusing on a fixed point the way we use our eyes when we read, but rather scanning the environment, almost in the mode of peripheral vision. And even at slower speeds, it's the kind of approach used by skilled chess players, as opposed to the brute force of computation that chess programs rely on, running through all the possible moves at inhuman speeds (which is why philosophers say that computers don't really play chess—which is to say, computers are cheaters, at least that's the answer that was given when philosopher Hubert Dreyfus's claim that no computer could play a decent game was chess back in the 60s was shown to be in error by Seymour Papert, as Dreyfus was soundly beaten by a computer).

Pattern recognition relates to formal cause in that the pattern or form is recognized by the individual, and therefore in the eye of the beholder. In the most modest sense, the individual applies the pattern to sensory data in order to make sense of what is being taken in, and that active  organization can be considered a kind of causality. To use a phrase favored by Gregory Bateson, as well as Edmund Carpenter, we're talking about the pattern that connects, or to invoke Bateson's famous quote:

What pattern connects the crab to the lobster and the orchid to the primrose and all the four of them to me? And me to you? And all the six of us to the amoeba in one direction and to the back-ward schizophrenic in another?

Bateson also used the term metapatterns to talk about patterns that recur across many different contexts, and this became the subject of Tyler Volk's fascinating book, entitled, appropriately enough, Metapatterns.  According to Bateson,

The pattern which connects is a metapattern. It is a pattern of patterns. It is that metapattern which defines the vast generalization that, indeed, it is patterns which connect. 

And according to Volk,

A metapattern is a pattern so wide-flung that it appears throughout the spectrum of reality: in clouds, rivers, and planets; in cells, organisms, and ecosystems; in art, architecture, and politics.

Volk, in his book, discusses patterns that occur in space, such as spheres, sheets and tubes, borders, binaries, centers, and layers, and also in time, such as calendars, arrows, breaks, and cycles. 

So now, connecting Bateson with McLuhan, I am arguing that formal cause can best be understood as patterns that direct. That is to say, patterns are not just effects, but that there is a tendency for things in the universe to fall into certain patterns, based on physical laws, not the least of which is the Second Law of Thermodynamics which establishes the ultimate triumph of entropy. The tendency of material phenomena to fall into certain patterns, even as they move towards increasing chaos, is also discussed in very insightful fashion in Terrence Deacon's recent book, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter, and Deacon does relate that tendency to formal cause.

In this sense, forms are real, not in the ideal sense that Plato thought them to be, but in a dynamic sense as patterns associated with events. Entropy itself is a pattern that directs.

Now, in another previous post, They Became What They Beheld, I brought up the wonderful videos of Vi Hart, and in particular one inspired by Edmund Carpenter. This time I want to introduce another video of hers entitled Doodling in Math Class: Connecting Dots, which she describes as "anti-parabola propaganda, plus musing on math class, cardioids, connect the dots, envelopes of lines, even a bit of origami." It's really quite marvelous, so please take a look:

Now, Vi only emphasizes the many ways that we can encounter parabolas and their cousins in mathematics, but what also emerges is that this is a great example of a metapattern, or pattern that directs, as it relates to gravity, ballistics (Angry Birds style or otherwise), seashells and other biological forms, not to mention planetary orbits.  

Vi Hart is, in my opinion, the contemporary equivalent of Hypatia, the 4th century Greek philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer who, remarkably for her time, became head of the neo-Platonist school in Alexandria. She was the subject of the 2009 film, Agorawhich I was very impressed with:

The trailer doesn't do the film justice, focusing as it does on action and conflict, which is a part of the story, and indeed much of the emphasis is on early Christianity's intolerance of Greek paganism and the philosophy associated with it, resulting in Hypatia's murder or execution. 

But for me a key theme in the film was Hypatia's attempts to understand the movements of the planets, trying to reconcile the conflict between the assumption that the planets would follow the perfect form of the circle, and the reality that their movements do not. The film speculates that she arrived at the answer of the ellipse, but never had a chance to relate her realization before her death.

The relationship among circles, ellipses, parabolas, and hyperbolas were first explored by the ancient Greeks, with the understanding that all are conic sections, as illustrated above (and as shown in Agora). That these patterns in geometry represent patterns that different physical phenomena fall into is, in my view, a form of formal cause, and an example of patterns that direct.

Now excuse me while I go play with some parabolas on my phone...