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Wednesday, April 16, 2008
hey, watched brian de palma's redacted last nite; it's received a range of reaction. i didn't know he'd also done casualties of war, which invites comparison of course, but outside the horror of war/occupation (and the sometimes tacit condoning of criminality that can occur during such times and in such places), i guess what struck me was how 'mediated' it seemed -- or was supposed to seem. and i guess that's de palma's thing; as zacharek sez:

We're separated from this girl in the movie not by thousands of miles, or even by the space between her and the camera lens, but by a membrane, a millimeter's breadth of life... De Palma has revisited one crucial question (a question that also obsessed Alfred Hitchcock before him): What happens when human beings fail to act?
and ebert: "Moments seem more real because they are not acted flawlessly." or like peirce sez of the footage that inspired stop-loss, which i haven't seen:
"We've never gotten this close to the soldier experience before. We're literally seeing it, feeling, hearing it, and they're cutting it, so they're seeing their fantasy of themselves... You put it in because you want to implicate the audience. If you don't, it's not morally complicated enough."
movies magnify people and events -- the whole larger than life thing -- supposedly deserving of our collective attention,* but the inevitable backlash of course is that, after awhile, the spectacle looks fake. not that that (fakiness) was what de palma was trying to accomplish or capture per se,** cf. dogville, but to me it was more about how we view (and are viewed by) the world on 'multiple channels'. here's de palma on the "immediacy" of it all:
[W]ith the success of "Platoon" -- well, it was decided that maybe these war movies make money. And that's when we got our movie made... what's so striking about it, and what gets such a reaction -- unlike in Vietnam, where we saw stuff on television and in our magazines -- is that nobody's seen anything [like that before]. I think that's why people are so stunned by the pictures at the end. They haven't seen pictures like that -- even though they're all over the Internet.
so you could make the comment that with iraq, unlike vietnam, people in the US can choose or have chosen to ignore what's going on 'over there' by and large (de palma sez they're "living in the Green Zone"). but to me (again) what's interesting is that we can afford to and i think that's what de palma was reacting to and what iraq war movies (as a genre) are up against, i.e. if our interactions with the rest of the world are elective, then in that sense we're already living in a self-constructed fantasy world -- a movie -- at which point, why bother watching?

btw, also saw two days in paris and paranoid park recently. i guess two days in paris was delpy's own 'reaction' to linklater's before sunrise/sunset... um, paranoid park reminded me of portland :P oh, speaking of paris, noticed hou remade the red balloon!

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*and where does that leave the rest of us (voyeurs)? :P
**or even to see beyond or thru it!

Monday, March 3, 2008
a silken mountain of forgery

An exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, highlights the many facets of a Chinese painter's career as scholar, collector, and, most intriguingly, master forger.

36 hours in mont tremblant

Combining the Canadian charm of a rustic logging town with the Old World flavor of the French Alps, Tremblant is consistently ranked as one of the best resorts in the East.

Friday, February 29, 2008
summary of argument

The division of labour is not unique to humanity. It occurs within animal and insect societies. What does seem to be unique is the astonishing diversity of forms which it can assume and has assumed in human societies. Among other species, something resembling "cultural" diversity may occur: the identical genetic equipment may allow some variation in conduct and organization of (say) a herd. That diversity may then only be explicable in terms of the history of that grouping and not by the genes of its members. (Ethnologists do not seem to be sure whether such diversity is to be explained by environmental pressures or by the history of the herd in question. Only in the latter case can one speak of "culture" in an important sense.) Such "cultural" diversity, however, is very limited. By contrast, among men it is truly enormous. The variety of human societies is staggering.

This diversity is not explicable genetically. The nature and extent of the contribution of genetic make-up to social forms is a contentious and unsettling issue, bedevilled by its political associations and implications. What is obvious, however, is that a very large part of the explanation of the form human societies assume must be social-historical and not genetic. The same genetic base permits wide diversity. This is obvious from the fact that populations which can be safely assumed to remain genetically identical, or very nearly so, can and do assume totally different social forms at different times. Very often, social change is simply far too rapid to be explicable by genetic change.

To say all this is not to say that genetic constitution makes no contribution whatever to history. It is conceivable that some genetic constitutions have a greater predisposition to some social forms than others. The issue is difficult, but it can also be ignored, and has indeed been ignored in this argument. The unquestionable and tremendous importance of social factors, of socially transmitted and instilled traits and features, is such to allow one, and indeed, oblige one, to evade the other problem for the time being. One can go a very long way by explaining the social by the social, and this is all we have tried to do.

One crucial aspect of the way in which human societies maintain and transmit their distinctive features can be called culture. Culture can be defined as the set of concepts in terms of which a given population acts and thinks. A concept is a shared way of grouping experiences and of acting and reacting, and usually has a name. A culture is a system, and not just a collection of concepts: the notions which constitute it are interrelated and interdependent in various complex ways, and it is plausible to suppose that they could not exist at all in isolation. Concepts like men, are gregarious. It does not follow that any one culture is a fully consistent or coherent system, whatever the criteria of coherence or consistency might be.

It is, however, important not to equate culture with the manner in which a social order perpetuates itself. Culture is one way in which it does so, but there are others. Anthropologists distinguish between structure and culture, and the distinction is useful and important. If one supposed that culture alone was responsible for the perpetuation of a social form, one would in effect be saying that only concepts constrain men to act in the way they do. This view is false, and constitutes a thoroughly misguided form of Idealism. For instance, a society may change its organization radically because some sub-group within it acquires control of the means of coercion, military or economic, and compels other members to obey it. This can happen without any change in the conceptual system in terms of which the community thinks and acts.

Such conceptual compulsion and perpetuation of order as does exist (and it is pervasive and important), cannot be assumed to be automatic. Concepts need to be instilled. The authority of concepts is not self-evident or self-imposing. The Durkheimian hypothesis that the prime role of ritual is the instilling of important concepts, and that this is what endows a community with its shared ideas and obligations, deserves the greatest respect. In a sense, every concept has and is a ritual. Important notions are served by important rituals.

Mankind can be said to have begun when a group of primates acquired a degree of genetic plasticity, so to speak, which made cultural constraint mandatory: when genetics became insufficient for constraining conduct within required limits. Then culture was born and language became indispensable. Potentially unbounded conduct needs to be constrained within some limits, the limits need to be indicated by markers, and language constitutes those markers. In the beginning was the prohibition. Initially, diversity could only be extreme between herds, and not inside them. The story of the division of labour is the account of the mechanics by means of which diversity could in the end also develop internally.

Mankind has passed through three fundamental ecological stages: hunting/gathering, agriculture, and industry. The earliest stage provided us with a kind of starting point. For the present argument, however, it is used largely as a kind of constant or baseline. We are interested mainly in what could not have happened then.
Agricultural society is defined by the systematic production and storage of food, and in a lesser measure of other goods. The existence of a stored surplus inevitably commits the society to some enforcement of the division of that surplus, and to its external defence. Hence violence, merely contingent amongst hunters, becomes mandatory amongst agriculturalists. Predators of animals were not necessarily predators to each other. Agrarian societies can and do grow to very large size, and they are Malthusian.

Their scale and the existence of a surplus generally lead them to a complex internal differentiation. The internal conflict for which the presence of a store destines them leads them to great inequality and sharp stratification. This is their most general feature. Generally speaking, they also despise work: they live by work, but prestige goes to those who coerce, or those who manipulate the signals which tell coercers how to gang up. This is indeed the commonest conception of nobility. Agriculture destined much of mankind to hunger and oppression.

There seems to be no general reason why specialists in coercion, and specialists in ritual and legitimation, should not be identical. These two supremely important specializations are indeed sometimes combined. But it is a fact crucial for the history of mankind that they were very often distinct to a greater or lesser degree. The sword may dominate, but the priests help crystallize cohesion among swordmen. They arbitrate among them, and enable them to gang up successfully. So thugs and priests between them inherit domination of the agrarian world.

The possibility of storing, organizing and transmitting meaning by means of writing is as fundamental as the production and storage of wealth. It makes possible far more effective unification and centralization of polities, of clerisies, and of doctrine. The self-interest of those in privileged positions, plus the inherent logic of perpetuation of a social order, jointly ensure that agrarian society is, all in all, stable. If turbulent, and it often is turbulent, its turbulence leads only to cyclical and not fundamental change.

Agrarian society continues to be, like its predecessor, a concept-implementing rather than an aim-pursuing society. Its notion of truth is that of compliance with a norm, rather than that of echoing extraneous fact. Truth is for it the fulfillment of an ideal, which in turn is moulded by complex and plural concerns. This is wholly different from truth as satisfaction of the simple, isolated requirement, such as the collating and predicting of facts. The truth of agro-literate society is essentially different from the truth of scientific-industrial society.

There are various reasons why the older notion of truth should have prevailed so long. The nature and importance of coercion is one of them. Coercion in its crude form, the threat of violent conflict and death, lends itself to no fine gradation but invokes a kind of unnegotiable totality and commitment. Loyalty, not reference, is the key value. There is, however, one field in which such instrumental rationality, the subjection of activity to the criteria of effectiveness alone, is possible: specialized production, where an activity can aim at one isolated purpose. In practice, in most agrarian societies, such activity is nevertheless ritually circumscribed, a small island in a sea of producers of subsistence.

How could this world have transformed itself into ours? What are the implications for us of this transformation? How was the switch from concept-implementation to generalized instrumental-rationality, from a norm-conception of truth to a referential one, from rule of thugs to rule of producers, from oppressed subsistence farmers to free market economy – how was all this possible?

The answer is that at most times and in most places, it was not possible, and did not happen. On a single-occasion, it did happen, and the technical superiority of the societies within which it occurred then transformed the entire world. All three spheres of human activity – cognition, coercion, production – had to be simultaneously in an unusual and favourable condition for the miracle to take place. In cognition, the shift of stress from ritual to doctrine, the unification of the vision of endowing it with a single apex, led to a vision of a unified, orderly world. The Protestants might well have said – Ein Gott, Eine Welt, Eine Regel. The notion of a unified orderly Nature and an egalitarian generic Reason led, by a miracle we cannot fully explain, to an effective exploration and utilization of nature. The subjection of cognitive claims to the verdict of insulated and independent data precludes a justification of the miracle itself by its own cognitive standards. No data can underwrite the sovereignty of data. Those who benefit from it and understand it are for ever precluded from explaining and guaranteeing it. They cannot enjoy the kind of reassurance which their ancestors enjoyed.

In the economy, a rise in productivity tilted the balance in favour of instrumentally efficient specialists and towards a more extensive and eventually an all-embracing market. In the polity, an unusual balance of power, internally and externally, and prevalent in the ideological as well as in coercive institutions, prevented an effective suppression of the new development. The cognitive explosion provided an expanding economy with an ever-receding frontier of opportunity. Perpetual innovation and continually increasing returns, and hence bribery of opponents and temporary non-beneficiaries, was possible. The old qualitative division of labour between the three orders of men, those who fight, pray and work, was finally eroded. It was replaced by a homogenous population of functional specialists, free, able and willing to change their specialisms. They communicated within one and the same literate but secularized idiom, drawn from a script-carried but non-exclusive high culture. Concepts as well as men ceased to live in castes or estates. A single conceptual currency accompanies and sustained an egalitarian humanity. The division of labour is dead, long live the division of labour!

It is the sphere of coercion, of politics, which is now crucial. Contrary to the two main ideologies born of the age of transition, the political order can neither be diminished nor consigned to the dog-house, nor will it wither away. A new kind of need for coercion or enforcement of decisions has arisen. The new affluent economy requires and enormous and largely lumpy, indivisible infrastructure. Strategic decisions concerning its deployment and form affect enormous populations for long periods and often do so irreversibly. This infrastructure is not, and cannot be, spontaneously generated, but needs constant attention and servicing, unlike its predecessor at the time of the inception of the new world. The state is now largely the name for the cluster of agencies that perform this role. How it is to be organized and checked, in conditions simultaneously of moral premiss-lessness and of great economic leeway – that is the question.

Sunday, February 24, 2008
a wandering kazakh, before borat

For many Kazakhs, an Oscar nomination for “Mongol” is more than a milestone in the development of their film industry.
he shoots, he scores; he makes movies
A two-time NBA All-Star, Baron Davis has a couple of other jobs: movie producer and movie critic.

Sunday, February 24, 2008
hey, i do have more to say on plough, sword and book; i finished it awhile ago and am on to a new philosophy of society, but more immediately to my attention, i saw american gangster last night; great story, ok movie. like the best part for me is when roberts (crowe) realises how many people heroin employs from the farmers in the golden triangle to the dealers on the street and then on to the whole legal, investigative, prosecutorial and penal establishment, which is a point that's been made elsewhere before, but it's a self-aware point too, because at this point it seems like the movie is knowingly admitting its complicity in the cops & robbers, sheepdog/wolf act. "hey," it's saying, "we're mining misery for redemption here too, folks :P it's a living!" and here you are watching it all, as atonement, getting your regularly scheduled dose of conscience/moral-injection in lieu of prayer... oh wait, it has to succeed on multiple levels? well, like the title kind of says it all, cementing the gangster as an (uniquely?) american achievement -- not only as a cautionary multicultural rags-to-riches role model, but as fodder for popular cultural entertainment.

but that was almost a throwaway moment/line in the movie... oh and the most interesting part too, which could have separated AG a little more from the rest of the field, was done in montage! it's when lucas (washington) decides to collude with roberts (since turned prosecutor) to root out institutionalised corruption in the NYPD's special investigations unit. but then the (mesmerizing) violent façade might just give way to a shocking lack of intelligence :P

so the interesting question for me, and bringing this back to PSB, is what happens when you eliminate resource constraints? (when the plough overtakes the sword with the help of the book) political bottlenecks become vestigial and institutional authority deterritorialises, like delanda's sez, leaving new 'territories' to be considered, e.g. making movies about the whole process, and so on...

so what if you legalised drugs and put a lot of people out of work, what would they do instead? would the cultural cachet that shrouds drug lords diminish leaving new outlaw signifiers to replace them? and (the real question for discriminating cinéastes!) would they make better subjects for the movies? hackers, identity thieves and anonymous haven't really cut it quite yet :P neo, the eternal champion, surely superheroes last all night long?

but whatever, i dunno, and it's sort of already happened anyway, several times; gritty neo-realism gives way to new-wave fabulism. prohibition was of a time, but that didn't stop people from making movies about it and continually 'locating' it within cultural memory, if not relegated to (archetypal pre-)history. why are westerns still being made and quite good ones at that? competing with high school teen comedies, earnest musicals and participant productions for our collective affections and affectations?

anyway, back to resource constraints/filters/doors of perception or whathaveyou :P when they are lifted, it enables all of the above -- an entire world of fanfic, of colliding diegesises -- which is why i find limitations so fascinating. or as grand ole party sez, "first comes chaos, then comes freedom," but one that i hope would still be predicated on kindness and empathy; like don't be a dick, man. um, so what was i going to say? i was about to repeat/plagiarise gellner's summary of argument (i still might), but i kinda already did here. suffice it to say then that:
Staring at that globe, I found it easy to dream of a profusion of color so thick and intense as to drench every inhabited spot on the planet. That there would be no darkness, that surely, with all the world so busily engaged in trying to find things out, that we would end up, somehow, figuring things out.
or just fake it 'til you make it, as they say; that is all! cf. but i'll give jesus a couple last words :P

father forgive them, for they know not what they do...

eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani? that is to say, why hast thou forsaken me?

cheers!

Friday, January 11, 2008
it's been awhile, but i've been inspired to write a book report/essay-ish thing to no one in particular...

[for the most part, if you're wondering, my 'online' activities have been limited to the occasional comment here and there or jotting off emails to (presumably) interested parties -- in short, actual people and not _you_ my imaginary pretend audience! (or rather _me_, to pad my own sense of inflated ego posterior posterity, which in functional reality is a long-winded way of saying this is mainly an 'orthogonal' note/reminder to myself of stuff i've thought whilst slowly making my way thru ernest gellner's _plough, sword and book: the structure of human history_ that i hope you, my dear valued and only reader, might find useful -- cuz this is nothing if not utilitarian*:)]

anyway, where was i? oh, so if you find 'the social construction of early man' sleep-inducing like i sorta do, it's usually because abstract concepts far removed from our personal grounding in reality are disconnected from one's immediate concerns (so defined!) but, like a lot of things, the problem is generally one of relative perspective and finding the one, or series of ones (and zeroes), that'll bring it all into focus.

as an example, literally, the ancient greeks (or whoever) are often held up as an exemplum of modern civilisation's progenitors, but you can also, and people do, carry this exercise backward and forward in time, even making them up. this proliferation of exemplars -- real or imagined (the 60's, the punk era, your various golden ages & belle époques) and even of sometimes overlapping counter-exemplars (the cultural revolution, the crusades, soviet gulags, concentration camps & various other periods of repression) -- hints of an elective choice among human endeavours, the collective scrambling and rescrambling of narratives guided at one point by the "material conditions of existence" or alternatively by reason & instinct or competing/contending with 'the market'.**

if multi-layered weltanschauungs & zeitgeists*** hold sway over collective human culture/experience -- society writ large -- then how do you go about classifying, analysing (and modelling?) it all? well, i haven't gotten very far, but on pg. 21 gellner proposes a simple 3x3 framework with hunting/gathering, agraria & industria (separated by the neolithic and industrial revs, respectively) on one axis and production, coercion & cognition along the other. of course, i'm already thinking about adhocracies & interstices (terroristes as instances?) and what might lie off the grid, but i'll leave that for another time, if i ever get around to it :P

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* so basically you haven't been missing anything
** feeding back into genetic evolution?
*** gesellschaft vs. gemeinschaft, viennese theory and veblen, what? i dunno!

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