de Botton – How to Think More About Sex

How Think More About Sex How Think More About SexAlain de Botton; Picador 2013WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder 

I read de Botton’s How to Think More About Sex on 1-2 November 2014. It was not quite what I expected; I also expected more. Then again, I gave a mixed review to The Architecture of Happiness, which suffers from some of the same issues.

But first, the contents:

I. Introduction

II. The Pleasures of Sex

     1. Eroticism and Loneliness

     2. Can ‘Sexiness’ Be Profound?

     3. Natalie or Scarlett?

III. The Problems of Sex

     1. Love and Sex

     2. Sexual Rejection

     3. Lack of Desire: Infrequency, Impotence, Resentment

     4. Pornography: Censorship, A New Kind of Porn

     5. Adultery: The Pleasures of Adultery, The Stupidity of Adultery

IV. Conclusion

Homework

My comments and excerpts:

de Botton writes in an overly generalized fashion, he considers few alternatives, he is quite probably contradicting himself on a couple occasions, he is often anthropomorphic and reifies to no end, and he seems to have written this book from a healthy, Euro-skinned, heterosexual of reasonably decent (or better) looks perspective. Gays, transexuals, asexuals, whatever do not appear. Do not get mention. Nor do the vast majority of people who are of mediocre appearance at best. Apparently, the only ones who should be thinking more (clearly/intelligently/humanely) about sex are healthy good-looking heterosexuals. Not.

I know this book is short but it leaves so damned much out. And that is perfectly fine and certainly expected. But if you are leaving out that much of the human experience of sex without even mentioning that you have no space for it then you do not deserve to name your book How to Think More About Sex. It really is that simple.

Based on this alone, one probably ought skip this book. But it is short and it has great moments. There are things of import to think about that he brings up. Some of his offerings for ways in and/or out of things are fine and some are bunk. But he is trying to intelligently discuss sex. I appreciate the hell out of that! But this only hits on occasion and it misses by so damned much in its general approach to ignoring much of the world’s population’s individual experiences.

Let’s dive in.

I. Introduction

I really liked this bit in the Intro. The end of that first paragraph is a bit over the top but I can’t argue really with that full one after it. He does a decent but succinct job of showing how messed up our “thinking” is about sex and, thus, why we may need to think/talk/act more intelligently about it.

“…. We [are] bothered by sex because it is a fundamentally disruptive, overwhelming and demented force, strongly at odds with the majority of our ambitions and all but incapable of being discreetly integrated within civilized society.

     Despite our best efforts to clean it of its peculiarities, sex will never be either simple or nice in the ways we might like it to be. It is not fundamentally democratic or kind; it is bound up with cruelty, transgression and the desire for subjugation and humiliation. It refuses to sit neatly on top of love, as it should. Tame it though we may try, sex has a recurring tendency to wreak havoc across our lives: it leads us to destroy our relationships, threatens our productivity and compels us to stay up too late in nightclubs talking to people whom we don’t like but whose exposed midriffs we nevertheless strongly wish to touch. Sex remains in absurd, and perhaps irreconcilable, conflict with some of our highest commitments and values. Unsurprisingly, we have no option but to repress its demands most of the time. We should accept that sex is inherently weird instead of blaming ourselves for not responding in more normal ways to its confusing impulses.” 6-7

II. The Pleasures of Sex

He leaps right in trying to show that sex is messy and great and vengeful and loving and …. He does a good job showing that we truly are less in charge than we think when it comes to sex. This is also a bit thin for someone new to it (I am not) but he’s on the right track. Evolutionary biology can only explain so much (if it does at all) and one has to bring other theories to bear to explain more than mere biological sexual attraction for reproductive purposes. He does. Are they the right ones, or at least highly useful?

     1. Eroticism and Loneliness

          “It could sound disgusting — and that’s the point. Nothing is erotic that isn’t also, with the wrong person, revolting, which is precisely what makes erotic moments so intense: at the precise juncture where disgust could be at its height, we find only welcome and permission. The privileged nature of the union between two people is sealed by an act that, with someone else, would have horrified them both.” 22

          “Sex temporarily liberates us from the punishment dichotomy, well known to every one of us since childhood, between dirty and clean. Lovemaking purifies us by engaging the most apparently polluted sides of ourselves in its procedures and thereby anointing them as newly worthy.” 37

On fetishes:

          “In a clinical sense, a fetish is defined as an ingredient, typically quite unusual in nature, which needs to be present in order for someone to achieve orgasm.” 38

          “In this wider sense, fetishes are simply details — most often related either to a type of clothing or to a part of another’s body — which evoke for us desirable sides of human nature. The precise origins of our enthusiasms may be obscure, but they can almost always be traced back to some meaningful aspect of our childhood: we will be drawn to specific things either because they recall appealing qualities of a beloved parental figure or else, conversely, because they somehow cancel out, or otherwise help us to escape, a memory of early humiliation or terror.

          The task of understanding our own preferences in this regard should be recognized as an integral part of any project of self-knowledge or biography. What Freud said of dreams can likewise be said of sexual fetishes: they are a royal road into the unconscious.” 39

Tying our fetishes to issues of values and the good life which he’ll bring out later:

          “The pleasure we derive from sex is also bound up with our recognizing, and giving a distinctive seal of approval to, those ingredients of a good life whose presence we have detected in another person. The more closely we analyze what we consider ‘sexy’, the more clearly we will understand that eroticism is the feeling of excitement we experience at finding another human who shares our values and our sense of the meaning of existence.” 44

     2. Can ‘Sexiness’ Be Profound?

          “A consensus emerges about which sorts of faces we find most appealing. From these studies [cross-cultural], evolutionary biologists have concluded that a ‘sexy’ person of either gender, far from being an unclassifiable abstraction, is in essence someone whose face is symmetrical (that is, the right and left sides match precisely) and whose features are balanced, proportionate and undistorted.” 81

          “The discipline [evol biol] absolves physical attraction of the charge of being purely superficial. While conceding that we judge people by their appearance, it holds that appearances themselves are anything but trivial and indeed point towards some rather profound qualities.” 84

     3. Natalie or Scarlett?

          “Evolutionary biology confidently predicts that we will be drawn to people on the basis of their evident health, but it has not put forward any truly convincing theories about why we should prefer one specific healthy person over another.” 63

But what about people who clearly are not “healthy” who find love and are attracted sexually to others?

          Wilhelm Worringer’s theory on art appreciation; essay, “Abstraction and Empathy,” 1907 64-8

          Worringer’s theory applied to sexual attraction 69-72

          “We then declare people ‘sexy’ when we see in them evidence of compensatory qualities, and are repelled by those who seem prone to drive us further into our extremities.” 70

          “We need both art and sex to make us whole, so it is not surprising if the mechanisms of compensation should be similar in each case. The specifics of what we find ‘beautiful’ and what we find ‘sexy’ are indications of what we most deeply crave in order to rebalance ourselves.” 72

III. The Problems of Sex

This section attempts to offer possible remedies, or at least ways in, to mitigate some of the many problems with sex. Of course, only a few are covered in the short space allowed. I am not sure how effectively he deals with some of them either.

     1. Love and Sex

          “It’s time for the need for sex and the need for love to be granted equal standing, without an added moral gloss. Both may be independently felt and are of comparable value and validity. Both shouldn’t require us to lie in order to claim them.” 79

Amen! The data on this–and he does provide some; there is much more–show what a damaging idea modern love (and marriage) truly is. Maybe someday perhaps the two can be pulled apart in a more sane and sensible way but I have my doubts.

     2. Sexual Rejection

          “We don’t have to take sexual rejection as a sure indication that another person has looked into our soul and registered disgust at every aspect of our being. The reality is usually much simpler and less shattering than that: for whatever reason, this particular individual just can’t get turned on by our body. We can take comfort in the knowledge that such a verdict is automatic, preconscious and immutable. The one doing the rejecting isn’t being intentionally nasty; he or she has no choice.” 82

If we could already use reason in regards to love and sex then this probably would be less of an issue than it is. Realigning our views on the issue, as he suggests, would be useful but quite unlikely to be of use to more than a handful of people, statistically speaking.

     3. Lack of Desire:

          i. Infrequency

               “The solution to long-term sexual stagnation is to learn to see our lover as if we had never laid eyes on him or her before.” 97

               “While going about their quite different types of business, the lover and the artist nonetheless come up against a similar human foible: the universal tendency to become easily habituated and bored, and to decide that whatever is known is unworthy of interest. We are prone to long for novelty, kitschy romanticism, drama and glamour.” 99

               “We should try to locate the good and the beautiful beneath the layers of habit and routine.” 102

          ii. Impotence

     Argues that this is a “symptom of respect.” Not buying that for a second, except in some percentage (I’m going with small) of all cases. And the reason why is all the bullshit he says about men in these paragraphs. Again, overly generalized beyond all possible acceptance. Gamergate and #teamharpy, along with way too many other things today show us that most men have not “evolved” as de Botton seems to think.

          iii. Resentment

               “By overwhelming consensus, our culture locates the primary difficulty of relationships in finding the ‘right’ person rather than in knowing how to love a real — that is, a necessarily rather unright — human being.” 121

Yes. This bit is quite valuable. Again, shows the utter destruction caused by the currently prevailing (by those in power) views of love and marriage in Western society.

     4. Pornography:

          i. Censorship

I. Just. He seems to accept, and argues, that pornography is extremely dangerous to society and that some form of censorship is necessary. He is writing in particular about the Internet. Yes, indeed, let’s let nanny-state governments censor the Internet so we can get back to work. Jackass! There are so many intermediate steps.

I should explain that my vehemence here is he because he made no real argument for pornography being an immense destructive force; just assumed via anecdata.

          ii. A New Kind of Porn

I. Just. Don’t. But now he wants a new kind of porn. “Virtue porn.”

“Yet is is possible to conceive of a version of pornography that wouldn’t force us to make such a stark choice between sex and virtue — a pornography in which sexual desire would be invited to support, rather than permitted to undermine, our higher values.” 139

OK. This might work for a few folks; he should go back and re-read his discussion of fetishes though, as a first caution. And some of his examples later on make some sense; again, for a few folks. But his discussion. Oy! His example to lead us into pornography that might support our virtues is Sandro Bottticelli’s The Madonna of the Book, c.1483.

Seems to be contradicting himself in these two sections also. Porn must be censored. Oh, look, a new kind of “virtue porn.” Make a choice or choose a middle ground, sir.

     5. Adultery:

          i. The Pleasures of Adultery

               “However, the real fault in the situation lies in the ethos of modern marriage, with its insane ambitions and its insistence that one person can plausibly hope to embody the eternal sexual and emotional solution to another’s every need.

               Taking a step back, what distinguishes modern marriage from its historical precedents is its fundamental tenet that all our desire for love, sex and family ought to reside in the selfsame person. No other society has been so stringent or so hopeful about the institution of marriage, nor ultimately, as a consequence, so disappointed in it.

               In the past, these very distinct needs — for love, sex and family — were wisely differentiated and separated out from one another.” 152

          ii. The Stupidity of Adultery

This section brought out how also very middle-class and above focused it is.

IV. Conclusion

     “When every contemptuous but fair thing has been said about our infernal sexual desires, we can still celebrate them for not allowing us to forget for more than a few days at a time what is really involved in living an embodied, chemical and largely insane human life.” 175-6

I can certainly agree with this view, but while he did a decent job arguing this, if it was what he truly meant to argue then I suppose it would have been a somewhat different book. Or perhaps not.

Homework

This is the sources section.

Conditionally recommended is what I am going to say. That is, if you want to think more about sex. Then again, if you want to think more about sex then I would recommend this book [any edition would be fine], even if the focus of each is not the same.

Administrivia:

I had to create a record at Open Library so I could use John Miedema’s OpenBook plugin. I had hoped I was done with adding so many records there but is good to be writing again. And it is a nice record.

Deschutes Brewery University: Barrel-Aged Beer event

On 6 Nov. we attended the Deschutes Brewery University: Barrel-Aged Beer event with 6 of ours friends. We got there a little early and Sara was able to grab a table so all 8 of us could sit together. The room was pretty full so I assume they had sold all 25 seats.

We tasted 8 different barrel-aged beers; four were from Deschutes, one was a collaboration between Deschutes and Hair of the Dog, and three were from other breweries. Hors d’oeuvres were served about midway through the beer sampling.

We also got a presentation from Jacob Harper, the barrel master at Deschutes. The beers were arranged in the order he figured was lightest to heaviest, but was slightly complicated by the fact that four were sours so they were placed at the back half.

We began with the Calabaza Blanca from Jolly Pumpkin (Traverse City, Ann Arbor and Dexter, Michigan). It is a light wheat/white ale hybrid that was slightly sweet and slightly sour. I thought it was fairly tasty but would not want to drink it in quantity or frequently. ~5% ABV. I gave it 4 stars.

Next was Ale D’or Fort from Deschutes, which I had never heard of. Turns out it was brewed for a special Oregon beer festival (missed the name) last year where all the brewers took a particular Brettanomyces yeast strain from Unibroue and competed with what they produced from it. It was light, almost wine-like, a strong gold which had been aged in French Pinot barrels. No carbonation. It tasted a lot like Ashton’s Fresh Hop London Strong Gold without the fresh hops, which is to say, amazing. 9%+ ABV. 5 stars.

Third was Deschutes’ Black Butte XXIV, which we have had a fair bit of and of which neither of us would tire of ever having. I have three bottles in the Cellar. It is an Imperial porter with dates, figs, chicory and other bits for flavor. 20% was aged in bourbon barrels. We were told that next year they plan on aging 50% of the batch in bourbon barrels, which will up the ABV a few %. I think everyone present let out a loud and appreciative “Oooohhh” at that. 10.8% ABV. 5 stars+

Fourth, and the last non-sour, was Deschutes’ The Abyss (2011). I have been really wanting to try this as this year’s version is being released today. It is an Imperial stout that used licorice and molasses in the kettle. It was 28% barrel-aged (11% Pinot noir, 15% bourbon, 2% raw Oregon oak barrels). It is relatively the same each year. My first reaction was a thoughtful “Hmmm.” I didn’t want to be hasty but I was definitely underwhelmed. It has a chocolate taste late in the mouth. It is tasty but I have to say it is no Black Butte Porter XXIV. 11% ABV. I gave it 4 stars and am hopeful for this year’s batch. It won World’s Best Stout & Porter at the 2012 World Beer Awards, which in my humble opinion it does not deserve. A damn fine beer it is but Black Butte XXIV Porter is better and Midnight Suns’ Berserker Imperial Stout blows them both away.

With any luck we will be one of the lucky few at the release party today to get in on the vertical tasting of 2008-2012 batches of The Abyss. Perhaps I’ll revise my opinion then. [Turns out they have moved up the time when the limited flights will be available and it isn’t looking good. We both questioned this on Twitter—mostly as to what time they really were being served—and got an interesting reply back so we’ll see.]

Fifth, and the first sour, was Tart of Darkness from The Bruery (Orange County, California). It was a sour stout made with cherries and aged in oak barrels. It tasted much lighter than it looked. 5.6% ABV. 4 stars.

Next was The Dissident from Deschutes, which we have also had recently and of which I have 2 bottles in the Cellar. It is made every other year and uses a secondary fermentation with Brettanomyces. Currently made in batches of 200 barrels they are aiming to begin producing it every year. 11.4% ABV. 5 stars. This won World’s Best Oud Bruin and Americas Best Oud Bruin at the 2012 World Beer Awards. World’s Best? I don’t know but it is certainly one of the finest sours produced outside of Belgium.

Next to last was Sang Noir from Cascade Brewing (Portland). Pretty darn sour. Light and thin but very sour. Cherries. Aged in French oak and bourbon barrels. 9.5% ABV. I gave it 4/3 stars. For me it was a 3 but I wondered if I were judging it too harshly since it had pushed past my acceptability for sourness.

Last was The Collage, also from Deschutes. We have also tasted this since being here and have a bottle in the Cellar. It comes from a collaboration with Hair of the Dog (Portland) and is a blend of Deschutes’ The Dissident (but unsoured) and The Stoic (a quad we are still waiting to try) and Hair of the Dog’s Fred  (10% ABV Golden Strong ale) and Adam (10% ABV; their 1st beer). It is 100% barrel-aged in 6 different types of barrels. Hair of the Dog uses a peat malt. It is tasty, no doubt, but it seems all the work is over much for the end result. 11.6% ABV. 4 stars.

I must say, though, that I am definitely looking forward to tasting Fred and Adam and other Hair of the Dog beers some day.

After the tasting we were still hungry so we moved downstairs for some dinner. Sara and I shared an Ashton’s Fresh Hop Strong London Gold which was excellent but perhaps not the best idea after all those other strong beers. And I had even been finishing a couple of Sara’s that she did not. I really felt it the next day!

It was, of course, election night and some of those at our table had been (::grumble:: understandably ::grumble::) refreshing their phones all evening as returns came in. During dinner we learned of a couple states’ equal marriage bills passing, Colorado’s passing of their marijuana bill, and of the reelection of Obama. Many people in the pub seemed genuinely happy at much of this but there were definitely groups of assorted sizes who were not. “Sorry if our reasonably joyous celebrations were disturbing you.” No, honestly, I’m not. Deschutes County is a lot more red than I ever might have imagined before moving here. I can see it now but I still find it hard to believe.

All in all, it was a tasty and enjoyable evening.

One of my favorite lines from Barrel Master Jacob Harper was one of the reasons why one might want to barrel-age a beer: “To add mystique to an already good beer.” I’ll raise my glass to a little mystique!

 

Today, meh

Today hasn’t been that awesome of a day. My stomach had a big knot in it when I went to bed last night, which I thought perhaps came from having the chocolate gelato for dessert after having had a Rodenbach Grand Cru at dinner.

Today the hard knot is gone but replaced by worse, which has really disrupted my day. I did get our ballots dropped off at the drive-thru ballot ‘box.’ We could have mailed our ballots in if we had been a couple days earlier in filling them out. But, the drive-thru was kind of neat. No “I Voted” stickers, though.

Also got a small bit of necessary grocery shopping in but I skipped Haiku Circle, which I had really wanted to attend. It was only the second meeting since it started last month. Also, I wanted to see how many people showed up since there was no reminder and maybe remind them to use the Facebook page or the email list or something.

Not much writing is getting done for DigiWriMo because I just feel pretty crappy. At this point, I am thinking I got a stomach bug of some sort. Whatever it is, I truly hope it clears up fast since tomorrow is the Deschutes Brewery University Barrel-Aged Beer class and I want a solid stomach for that!

Thanks to a tweet from Andromeda (@ThatAndromeda) earlier today, I am signed up for a free Git and GitHub Basics class from GitHub. So this afternoon I got Git installed on my Mac (command line version), set up a GitHub account (MarkLindner), made my first repository and followed Andromeda as she suggested. I hope/think I’m ready for the class tomorrow. I have no idea when I’ll have a real use for Git and GitHub but hopefully I can learn enough to plod along when the time comes. Who knows, maybe that time will be sooner than I think.

Also, in some way, it seems directly related to DigiWriMo, so now is as good a time to learn as any.

Late this afternoon we went to an event held by OSU-Cascades called Brains & Brews, which is where a professor talks about some of their current research while folks sit around and drink at a local establishment. It is so popular that you have to sign up in advance and it isn’t advertised on the faculty events calendar page. It was quite interesting. A couple folks talked about equine-based psychotherapy with folks with PTSD.

Hopefully the evening will remain quiet and my stomach will get itself under control. I guess when I have to eat next, which will be soon, we’ll see.

Two-Thirds Book Challenge Update 6

This is update 6 in the Two-Thirds Book Challenge.

Helen

Helen has been quite busy this month … catching up on blogging things that she has read over the last few months.

Trinity by Leon Uris

She gave this one 5 stars in goodreads. “It is a dreary & beautiful slog through fictionalized history of a conquered people.” See her review for more.

The Littlest Hitler by Ryan Boudinot

This collection of short stories garnered 3 stars from her. While the “stories were all technically very well written” she “just kept thinking over and over that it was all trying too hard. The writing was effortless and a pleasure to read, but the story was always a little too hip, a little too cool, a little too ‘look how shocking.'” She hopes to try some of his more recent stuff before writing him off.

Pure Drivel by Steve Martin

“Usually I love Steve Martin’s writing, but this one was a miss for me.” 3 stars. See her review for why this one just didn’t work for her.

Scenes From An Impending Marriage by Adrian Tomine

Another 5 star book. “I hear that this comic isn’t his best work from lots of folks, but since a) I’ve read and loved all his work and b) I feel a kinship to his attitude about most things, I feel qualified to say this book was awesome.” As someone ‘recently’ married, she has convinced me to read it.

Murder Unleashed by Rita Mae Brown

“This story is a murder mystery that encompasses a wide variety of topics including but not limited to: the mortgage crisis, squatter’s rights, hunger both human and animal, coyote’s and ranch politics, cattle farming, campaign finance, school buses, and sex industry workers. I’m sure there was more, plus the everyday lives of regular characters. The story is easy and RMB has a gift for packing a lot of content into a weekend read without making it laborious.”

She thinks the series is improving but read her review to find out why she only gave it 3 stars.

 Jen!!

After a drought, two books down

Summer Knight by Jim Butcher

“This is the fourth book in the Dresden series and I loved it. It lived up to Butcher’s standards for adventure, inventiveness, and fun.”

Years of Grace by Margaret Ayer Barnes

“[I]nspired by a reference in The Violets of March” she was led into the Stacks at UIUC and was “glad that I followed through on reading it. … Indeed, I found it a thoughtful telling of a life, the choices made, and the results that come from those choices.”

Sounds like a good read. And Brava, Jen, for daring the Stacks! I miss them so very, very much!

The Marriage Artist by Andrew Winer

Past, present, Vienna, World War II, art, death and lovers. Wow. “The book drew me in almost instantly, making want to know more about the characters–their past, their future, how they would deal with the present. … This book is a wonderful get-a-way from the day to day and I especially like the time shifting of it and getting to witness the impact that the choices made in one’s youth had on the future.”

Sara

Quiet Renaissance Power

Sara reviewed two books “that were very different but struck similar chords” for her, which she read during the same time period as part of her Creativity theme for the 2/3rds Book Challenge: Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking by Susan Cain, and The Renaissance Soul: life design for people with too many passions to pick just one by Margaret Lobenstine.

“In the end, I benefited from reading both of these books and I think reading them at the same time worked out really well. From Renaissance Soul, I have a list of specific goals and a timeline which actually feels realistic. From Quiet, I have several other book recommendations (I think I’ll finally get around to reading Flow now) and better ways of articulating what I need to myself and others.”

She does caution readers about an “us and them” premise which is present in both books, though.

E

The Wild Palms (If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem) by William Faulkner

This was a tough one for E but it will be with her for a long time. Life often puts these complex and difficult texts in front of us during times of stress, whether we need them or not, and they change us; often for the better, more often not appreciated until much later.

Read her powerful review.

“Do I even need to tell you that there can’t possibly be a happy ending? “That story ends very badly for all involved, you know.” “Don’t all the good ones?” And then there’s this, where I am right now, drinking bourbon in the back room of my new apartment in Pilsen, listening to the whistle of trains in the distance, scanning for the moon against the night sky.”

Keep scanning for the moon, my friend. She’ll always be there for you. Day or night, day and night, she has always been there for me.

Mark

In Defence of the Enlightenment by Tzvetan Todorov

I really wanted to like this book but it let me down. Sure, my review is far more nuanced than that, and I am glad I read it, but that is the gist of my reaction to it.

See you next month.

Todorov, In Defence of the Enlightenment

In defence of the EnlightenmentTzvetan Todorov ; translated from the French by Gila Walker.; Atlantic Books 2009WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder

I almost bought this book when it came out in December 2009, but I had read at least one review which was not very positive. I wish I could find whatever I had read to see whether I agree with it. I have tried but I failed.

I have read at least three other Tzetvan Todorov books that I am certain of: Facing the Extreme, Imperfect Garden, and Hope and Memory. I have enjoyed them all, even when I have not entirely agreed with him.

I decided to pick this up now as I am taking a class this semester in Enlightenment Literature, or, more specifically on Anglo-American Enlightenment literature. Todorov focuses on the French Enlightenment, understandably; he has lived in France since 1963. Certainly, a few other thinkers from Germany, England, and America crop up but the vast majority of references are to French thinkers.

I read this book, in essence, twice between 3 February and 5 March 2012. I read a chapter or two and then I went back and reread and took my notes, leapfrogging slightly ahead with my reading over my note taking.

I have decided to count it as a Two-Thirds Book Challenge book as it is directly applicable to my current interests, it is a fairly meaty book for its length, and, as I said, I read it twice.

I wanted to like this book more than I did. It’s not bad but it seemed a little narrow-minded, or defensive, perhaps. And, yes, I am fully aware that it is supposed to be a defense; but, there is a fine line between making a defense and being defensive.

Contents:

  • Introductory Note
  • 1 The Project
  • 2 Rejections and Distortions
  • 3 Autonomy
  • 4 Secularism
  • 5 Truth
  • 6 Humanity
  • 7 Universality
  • 8 The Enlightenment and Europe
  • A Note of Conclusion
  • Notes

The physical book (hardbound) is a nice artifact, well edited, no typos, with good margins, but no index.

§ Introductory Note

“… I set out here to outline the key points of Enlightenment thought, without losing sight of our times, in a continual back-and-forth movement between past and present” (2).

§ The Project

Trying to define the Enlightenment project is difficult for two reasons: (1) It “was a period of culmination, recapitulation and synthesis, not one of radical innovation”; and (2) “Enlightenment thinking was formulated by a great many individuals who, far from agreeing with one another, were constantly engaged in bitter discussions, from one country to another and within each country” (3-4).

Three ideas form the basis of the Enlightenment project, according to Todorov:

  1. autonomy
  2. the human end is the purpose of our acts
  3. universality (4-5)

“[W]hat we need today is to re-establish Enlightenment thinking in a way that preserves the past heritage while subjecting it to a critical examination, lucidly assessing it in light of its wanted and unwanted consequences. … [I]t is through criticism that we remain faithful and put its teaching into practice” (23).

§ Rejections and Distortions

Enlightenment thinking was the subject of much criticism, particularly from the civil and church authorities that were being challenged (25). Many criticisms were directed against caricatures of Enlightenment thought, while some simply misread its spirit, Todorov tells us.

But this is one of the weak points of the book; Todorov told us earlier that many different and disparate voices vehemently disagreed about what exactly was the Enlightenment project but throughout the rest of the book he gives us a pretty straightforward account, claiming that such-and-such is the Enlightenment view of each topic that he covers. But it simply is not that easy. While I agree with him in general outline most of the time, the discussions he provides really need to be more complicated and nuanced. Perhaps that would lengthen the account but if one is going to defend the Enlightenment then one should do it well and not use an oversimplified caricature of Enlightenment thought.

I do think he does a decent job of showing how various ideas that pass for a fairly mainstream view of the Enlightenment are actually distortions of it, and how these ideas were often bastardized in the employment of dubious, and much worse, ends.

§ Autonomy

Twofold movement: “a negative movement of liberation from norms imposed from the outside and a positive movement of construction of new norms of our own devising” (41).

Discusses various forms and kinds of autonomy, such as collective vs, individual, of thought, opinion, etc., and its abuses by thinkers such as de Sade. Some of the possible conflicts between demands for collective autonomy and individual autonomy discussed include:

  • education as indoctrination (50)
  • economic globalization (51)
  • international terrorism (51-2)
  • mass media (53)
  • influence of fashion / spirit of the age/place (53-5)
  • public opinion (54-5)
  • advertising (55)

 § Secularism

Discusses various forms of temporal vs. spiritual power and what exactly secularism is. Other threats discussed are the family, Communism, Nazism and fascism. As Todorov tells us, “The enemies of a secular society are many” (70). Several pages discuss the role of the sacred in a secular society, and it does have one.

§ Truth

Distinguishes between two types of acts and discourses, those that aim for the good and those that aim for truth (77). Also discusses dangers to truth.

“The political life in a republic and the autonomy of its citizens are threatened by two symmetrical opposing dangers: moralism and scientism. Moralism reigns when the good prevails over truth and, under the pressure of the will, facts become malleable materials. Scientism carries the day when values seem to proceed from knowledge and political choices are passed off as scientific deductions” (82-3).

The scientism that arose, and is still with us, was opposed by some Enlightenment thinkers like Montesquieu, Rousseau (85). Some of the dangers of scientism discussed include:

  • 20th-century totalitarianism and the elimination of ‘inferior’ races and/or reactionary classes (86)
  • the temptation to rely on ‘experts’ to formulate moral norms or political objectives (86)
  • the sociobiological’ project (86)
  • heterogeneity in the paths to knowledge (87-8).

Moralism is, of course, much older than the Enlightenment and its dangers are also discussed.

Todorov writes, “Truth cannot dictate the good but neither should it be subjugated to it. Scientism and moralism are both alien to the spirit of the Enlightenment. But a third danger exists, and that is that the very notion of truth be considered irrelevant. … [The challenge to truth in totalitarian regimes] is that the very distinction between truth and falsehood, between truth and fiction, became superfluous in light of the purely pragmatic considerations of usefulness and convenience” (91-2)

He then goes on to show several examples in the US where truth is subjugated to “usefulness and convenience” in the very late 20th-century/early 21st (92-4). We would do well to think about these kinds of issues. And, yes, he slams present day France repeatedly throughout the book, too.

§ Humanity

Discusses how the shift of the human to the center was practically Copernican; “Not surprisingly this reversal elicited strong opposition from those who defended the existing hierarchy, from Bonald to John Paul II” (103).

de Sade is again mentioned in this chapter for his distortions of Enlightenment views.

§ Universality

Discusses equality and human rights, along with challenges to them such as the death penalty, political correctness, and relativism.

§ The Enlightenment and Europe

Discusses why the Enlightenment happened where and when it did considering that none of its ideas were particularly new, and some went back thousands of years.

“The lesson of the Enlightenment consists in saying that plurality can give rise to a new unity in at least three ways: it encourages tolerance through emulation; it develops and protected a critical spirit; and it facilitates self-detachment, which leads to a superior integration of the self and the other” (143-44)

§ A Note of Conclusion

On why the Enlightenment still holds relevance today:

“The reason for its topicality is twofold: we are all children of the Enlightenment, even when we attack it; at the same time, the ills fought by the spirit of the Enlightenment turned out to be more resistant than eighteenth-century theorists thought. They have grown even more numerous. The traditional adversaries of the Enlightenment — obscurantism, arbitrary authority and fanaticism — are like the heads of the Hydra that keep growing back as they are cut. This is because they draw their strength from characteristics of human beings and societies that are as ineradicable as the desire for autonomy and dialogue. … Added to this are modern distortions of the Enlightenment, in the form of scientism, individualism, radical desacralization, loss of meaning and wholesale relativism, to name a few” (149-50).

The Enlightenment may be history but it is still extremely relevant today. Enlightenment thinking was highly complex, and it was disputed by those within and without the project. It deserves not to be oversimplified.

This is a decent book and it was worth reading, but it is flawed by simplification where there should have been complexity.

Some things seen around the Internet lately

Drinking with the Troops

From a local blog, Urbanagora, comes “Drinks with a Soldier.” I just love how some jackass commentor tries to hide behind the shield of anonymity and call the post author a liar. Certainly there are all sorts of views on this war, including those of the troops fighting it.

Perhaps if you ever get the chance—you could try arranging the chance—you, too, should have drinks with a soldier (or sailor, airman or marine) and find out a bit about what it is like on the ground in this war.  Of course, don’t forget the millions of servicemembers still living who served in our previous wars. A patient, caring ear would do many of them a world of good.

The value of a liberal arts education

For an interesting discussion on the value, or lack thereof, of a liberal arts education and liberal arts colleges see “On Liberal Education” at the Academic Librarian blog. Wayne Bivens-Tatum critiques the views of the author of a new book on the subject, as presented in The Kansas CW.

A spirited back-and-forth between Bivens-Tatum and the book author follows in the comments. I should state up front that I agree entirely with all of Bivens-Tatum’s points and his larger argument. The book author tries to point out some flaws in Bivens-Tatum’s arguments which simply are not there. I found that rather humorous.

But the one point I was hoping Bivens-Tatum would take up was the author’s insistence that some immediately practical subjects should get substituted for liberal arts classes because students are incurring too much debt, can’t pay their student loans, have to take high paying jobs vs. the job of their dreams, have to move back home with mommy & daddy, etc. because colleges are financially predatory.

So the solution is immediately practical vocational training? Wouldn’t better financial counseling for students, laws barring credit card companies from preying on students, educational finance reform, and so many other things be helpful, too, and perhaps even more ethically important? Have a look and see what you think.

Early Mike Wallace interviews with “important people”

Via Resource Shelf comes The Mike Wallace Interview.

In the early 1960’s, broadcast journalist Mike Wallace donated 65 recorded interviews made in 1957-58 from his show The Mike Wallace Interview to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas. The bulk of these were 16mm kinescope film recordings, some of the earliest recordings of live television that were possible, and that survive today. Many of these have not been seen for over 50 years, and they represent a unique window into a turbulent time of American, and world history.

See interviews with jockey Eddie Arcaro, stripper Lili St. Cyr, actress Gloria Swanson, Steve Allen, Frank Lloyd Wright, birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger, Eleanor Roosevelt, novelist Pearl Buck, and many others.

Doing the dirty fictionally

Via 3 quarks daily we get a book review in the New York magazine of Robert Olen Butler’s Intercourse: Stories. Find it in a library near you via WorldCat.

Robert Olen Butler’s new story collection, Intercourse, is, as its title suggests, totally about doing it. It imagines the thoughts of 50 iconic couples as they knock the proverbial boots, beginning with Adam and Eve copulating on “a patch of earth cleared of thorns and thistles, a little east of Eden,” and ending with Santa Claus blowing off postholiday steam in January 2008 by doing the nasty with an 826-year-old elf in the back room of his workshop. But, as the clinical tone of Butler’s title also suggests, Intercourse is very much not a work of erotica. It tends to ignore messy fluids and crotch-logistics in favor of wordplay and psychological nuance.

Civilization and cultures

Also via 3 quarks daily we get Tzvetan Todorov in the Pakistan Daily Times thinking and writing to his usual standard of quality.

But if you look at this line of argument more closely, the flaw in Barnavi’s argument is immediately apparent. The meaning of the words civilisation and culture is very different when they are used in singular and plural forms. Cultures (plural) are the modes of living embraced by various human groups, and comprise all that their members have in common: language, religion, family structures, diet, dress, and so on. In this sense, “culture” is a descriptive category, without any value judgement.

Civilisation (singular) is, on the contrary, an evaluative moral category: the opposite of barbarism. So a dialogue between cultures is not only beneficial, but essential to civilisation. No civilisation is possible without it.

[There, S, I did it. And no, neither linking to the Academic Librarian nor WorldCat invalidates my effort. ;-) ]

Some things read this week, 28 October – 3 November 2007

Sunday, 28 Oct

Davis, Hayley, and Talbot J. Taylor, eds. Redefining Linguistics. London: Routledge, 1990.

  • Ch. 4: Talbot J. Taylor. Normativity and Linguistic Form. (Sat-Sun)
  • Ch.5: Paul Hopper. The Emergence of the Category ‘Proper Name’ in Discourse. (Sun)

The Taylor chapter was particularly excellent.

Zwicky, Arnold M. and Ann D. Zwicky. “Register as a Dimension of Linguistic Variation.” In Kittredge and Lehrberger, Eds. Sublanguage: Studies of Language in Restricted Semantic Domains. Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 1982: 213-218.

Harris, Roy. The Language-makers. London: Duckworth, 1980. [Re-reading]

  • Ch. 1.
  • Ch. 2

Harris, Roy, and George Wolf, eds. Integrational Linguistics: A First Reader. 1st ed, Kidlington, Oxford, UK: Pergamon, 1998.

  • Ch. 5: Toolan, Michael. A Few Words on Telementation.

Monday, 29 Oct

Hampsher-Monk, Iain, Karin Tilmans, and Frank van Vree, Eds. History of Concepts: Comparative Perspectives. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1998.

  • Intro: Iain Hampsher Monk. Karin Tilmans and Frank van Vree. “A Comparative Perspective on Conceptual History – An Introduction.”
  • Ch. 1: Pim den Boer. “The Historiography of German Begriffsgeschichte and the Dutch Project of Conceptual History.”
  • Ch. 2: Reinhart Koselleck. “Social History and Begriffsgeschichte.

Downey, et. al. How to Think Like a Computer Scientist, 2nd ed. [For LIS452]

  • Ch. 17: Linked lists
  • Ch. 18: Stacks
  • Ch. 19: Queues
  • Ch. 20: Trees

Harris and Wolf, Eds. See above.

  • Ch. 6: Harris, Roy. The Dialect Myth.
  • Ch. 7: Love, Nigel. Integrating Languages.

The Love was highly similar to his other article I read last week, The Locus of Languages in a Redefined Linguistics. In fact, whole paragraphs were the same as was the gist of the argument. If I were to recommend one over the other it would be one I just read. It is shorter and perhaps even clearer.

Tuesday, 30 Oct

History of Concepts: Comparative Perspectives. See above.

  • Ch. 3: Iain Hampsher-Monk. Speech Acts, Languages or Conceptual History?

Harris and Wolf, Eds. See above.

  • Ch. 11: Farrow, Steve. Irony and Theories of Meaning.
  • Ch. 12: Taylor, Talbot J. Conversational Utterances and Sentences

Wednesday, 31 Oct

History of Concepts: Comparative Perspectives. See above.

  • Ch. 4: Hans Erich Bödeker. Concept — Meaning — Discourse. Begriffsgeschichte Reconsidered.

I’ve read 4 chapters of this book now and I’m still not really any closer to understanding what Begriffsgeschichte is. Perhaps reading one of the chapters that are supposedly examples will help. I’m not sure why I’m not getting it. Much of the writing is not very clear but then most has been translated into English also.

I only have the book for a few more days. I’ll have another look at the intro and see what I perhaps ought to read next that might help. Then I think I’ll copy 2 or 3 of the chapters I’ve already read for re-reading in the future. It seems as if something is important here but I’m not getting it right now. I’m also feeling ill again, so maybe it’s just my stupid brain not dealing with it as it should.

Harris and Wolf, Eds. See above.

  • Ch. 13: Taylor, Talbot J. Do You Understand? Criteria of Understanding in Verbal Interaction.

Thursday, Nov 1

History of Concepts: Comparative Perspectives. See above.

  • Ch. 6: Terence Ball. Conceptual History and the History of Political Thought.

López-Huertas, María J. Challenges in Knowledge Representation and Organization for the 21st Century. Integration of Knowledge across Boundaries. Proceedings of the Seventh International ISKO Conference, 10-13 July 2002, Granada, Spain. Advances in Knowledge Organization, 8 (2002).

  • Poli, Roberto. “Framing Information.” pp. 225-231.
  • Smith, Terence R., Marcia Lei Zeng and ADEPT Knowledge Organization Team. “Structured Models of Scientific Concepts for Organizing, Accessing, and Using Learning Materials.” pp. 232-239.
  • Carlyle, Allyson and Lisa M. Fusco. “Equivalence in Tillett’s Bibliographic Relationships Taxonomy: A Revision.” pp. 258-263.
  • Mai, Jens-Erik. “Is Classification Theory Possible? Rethinking Classification Reserach.” pp. 472-478.

Poli – hard to say from such a short overview but I don’t think I’m agreeing with some of his ontological thinking and/or his relationships.

Smith, et. al. – sounds very interesting but would like to see more examples.

Carlyle and Fusco – “He laughed, he cheered, he cried.” I wanted to like this paper. They point out an issue with Tillett’s original methodology, which is there to be recognized if one only reads her dissertation. And while this is an issue of method, I do not know that it really impinges much on her results. Validity of the results would be strengthened if she had done it as pointed out, but would they be different?

The aim of the revision [which is a small part of a larger revisiting of Tillett’s relationships by the authors and David M. Levy] is to suggest “that equivalence be determined syntagmatically; that is, that it be defined relative to the use of documents” (260).

They spend a fair amount of space showing that the substitutability of one document for another is context dependent; that is, based on the user’s context. I fully agree that this is the case. Sometimes edition is irrelevant to the user. It is possible that one book by an author is as good as any other by the same author for the user. These are just a few possible examples. But then they just forget about the importance of context dependency.

Equivalence relationships hold among document representations in which one or more document properties described in the representations are shared (262).

First off, that should be “ER potentially hold ….” Even then it is still too broad. And did you notice that they are talking about the equivalence of document representations and not of documents. I’ll let you read the article and figure that bit out for yourself.

While we ought to have a concept of the equivalence relationships between document representations—is that simple DC record equivalent to that full MARC record and is it equivalent to that full VRA Core record for that Corinthian amphora?—this paper is talking about the documents (broadly construed) that users want to retrieve and use based on their interactions with library catalogs and other knowledge organization tools.

And while information professional are users too, and while document surrogates are also used, this is not the type of use being primarily discussed in this article. Thus, who cares whether there are equivalence relationships between “document representations?”

Thus, their proposal to subsume Tillett’s shared characteristics relationship under the equivalence relationship is both hasty and ill-advised. It is the case that only sometimes—that is in some contexts—can documents with shared characteristics be said to be equivalent.

And I doubt that there is ever a real user’s case that would include “the movie Scrooged, based on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and the children’s picture book produced by Disney, Mickey’s Christmas Carol” (262) as equivalent documents! And even in the rare case that there was they could only be said to be so in that specific user’s context.

Considering that some of the potential shared characteristics that Tillett lists include color and size of binding, date of publication, country of publication, language, format or media (*, 27) how often are these going to truly be equivalence relationships in an actual context of use? Sure, I can dream up a context for each of them. That is not the point. The point is that items are only equivalent in the context of a user’s need and desires in that situation.

“Please Mr. Librarian, may I please have a blue book?” [I am well acquainted with patrons asking for a book by its color. But in every instance that I have ever heard of it is a specific book they are looking for and not just any book of that color.]

The overhasty subsumption of Tillett’s shared characteristics relationship under the relationship of equivalence is not a good move.

Seeing as this article is a couple of years old now I’ll have to see if I can track down anymore on their larger project of revising Tillett’s bibliographic relationships. In my spare time, of course. :(

* See Tillett, B. B., “Bibliographic Relationships.” In Bean & Green, Eds. Relationships in the Organization of Knowledge, 2001.

Mai – poorly edited, some bad paragraph transitions, thus hard to follow the argument at times. Perhaps a result of the format of these short articles which are, in effect, synopses of presentations and not entire “paper.” In the end, I’m pretty sure that I concur with the conclusions, which are coherently presented.

Florén, Celia. “The language of the mind: the mental discourse of the characters in Middlemarch.” In Inchaurralde, Carlos (Ed.) Perspectives on Semantics and Specialised Languages. Universidad de Zaragoza, Departamento de Filología Inglesa y Alemana, 1994: 185-195.

Friday, 2 Nov

History of Concepts: Comparative Perspectives. See above.

  • Ch. 7: Bernhard F. Scholz. Conceptual History in Context: Reconstructing the Terminology of an Academic Discipline. [Fri.-Sat.]

ISKO 7 / AKO 8

  • Fernández-Molina, J. Carlos and J. August0 C. Guimarães. “Ethical Aspects of Knowledge Organization and Representation in the Digital Environment: Their Articulation in Professional Codes of Ethics.” pp. 487-492.
  • Anderson, Jack. “Ascribing Cognitive Authority to Scholarly Documents. On the (Possible) Role of Knowledge Organizations in Scholarly Communication.” pp. 28-37.

Saturday, 3 Nov

ISKO 7 / AKO 8

  • Priss, Uta. “Alternatives to the “Semantic Web”: Multi-Strategy Knowledge Representation.” pp. 305-310.
  • García Gutiérrez, Antonio. “Knowledge Organization from a “Culture of the Border”: Towards a Transcultural Ethics of Mediation.” pp. 516-522.
  • Nair Yumiko Kobashi, Johanna W. Smit and M. de Fátima G. M. Tálamo. “Constitution of the Scientific Domain of Information Science.” pp. 80-85.

Priss reviews the successes and failures of AI and NLP as an attempt to determine what the Semantic Web might actually be able to do. Suggests that failures to date are due to the fact that these methods have failed to combine associative and formal structures. Seeing as Semantic Web structures are entirely formal (as of 2002 anyway), what are the prospects?

García Gutiérrez – much of this article is hard for me to understand. I don’t know what register or style or whatever it is mostly written in, but whatever it is is pretty much unintelligible to me. Still, I think he is saying something important. It could just be said much more simply and perhaps even shorter. The last third is fairly clear, though, and I mostly agree. It is a good reminder to us to consider other ways of viewing, categorizing, and organizing the world in mind and to construct more inclusive systems.

Luzón Marco, José. “Creative aspects of lexis in scientific discourse.” In Inchaurralde, Carlos (Ed.) Perspectives on Semantics and Specialised Languages. Universidad de Zaragoza, Departamento de Filología Inglesa y Alemana, 1994: 261-273.

Shows that the “meaning of words is negotiated and liable to constant change” even in scientific discourse (261). My only gripe with this article is that there are several references missing from the reference list. This is something I am noticing more and more. It seems especially prevalent in conference papers.

Harris, Roy. The Language-makers. London: Duckworth, 1980. [Re-reading]

  • Ch. 3.
  • Ch. 4.
  • Ch. 5.

Some things read this week, 24 – 30 June 2007

Saturday – Sunday, 23-24 June

Corry, Richard. “Causal Realism and the Laws of Nature.” Philosophy of Science 73 (3), July 2006: 261-276.

Sunday, 24 June

Smiraglia, Richard P. and Gregory H. Leazer. “Derivative Bibliographic Relationships: The Work Relationship in Global Bibliographic Database.” JASIS 50 (6), 1999: 493-504.

Cited by Tillett, B. B. “Bibliographical Relationships.” In Bean & Green (2001), amongst many other places, which I’m re-reading closely for my Topic Maps work.

Interesting empirical data on extent, prevalence and size of bibliographic families, types of relationships and their prevalence, and some data on characteristics of progenitor works and the correlation of these characteristics on the size and shape of a bibliographic family.

Monday, 25 Jun

Hjørland, Birger, and Jeppe Nicolaisen. 2004. Scientific and scholarly classifications are not “naïve”: a comment to Begthol [sic]. Knowledge Organization 31, no. 1: 55-61.

Beghtol, Clare L. 2004. Response to Hjørland and Nicolaisen. Knowledge Organization 31, no. 1: 62-63.

Nicolaisen, Jeppe, and Birger Hjørland. 2004. A rejoinder to Beghtol (2004). Knowledge Organization 31, no. 3: 199-201.

Thanks to Kristina for pointing out in a comment on last week’s post that these follow-ups exist regarding Beghtol’s use of the term “naïve.” Always nice to see smart people have already thought the same things that I notice.

Mann, Thomas. “The Peloponnesian War and the Future of Reference, Cataloging, and Scholarship in Research Libraries.” [pdf here]

I think is Mann’s most balanced piece (lately) so far. It has been getting a lot of play including a nice write-up by David Weinberger.

Well worth the read no matter which side of the controlled vocabulary / tagging debate you come down on. [I cannot believe I just wrote that. Perhaps I should say that if you believe there is said debate then you absolutely need to read it. If you are with most of us who believe they both have a time and place, and that may they might even serve to describe the same entity, then reading it is also a good idea.]

Introna, Lucas D. “The (im)possibility of ethics in the information age.” Information and Organization 12, 2002: 71-84.

Cited by Kemp (NASKO 2007) “Classifying marginalized people, …”, p. 59, but I was really more drawn to it by its title and not by its use as a citation.

Wow!

Written about at length here.

Tuesday, 26 Jun

Tillett, Barbara B. “A Summary of the Treatment of Bibliographic Relationships in Cataloging Rules.” Library Resources & Technical Services 35 (4), Oct 1991: 393-405.

2nd in a series of 4 articles based on Tillett’s dissertation.

Read for Topic Maps and GP cause I’m geeky like that.

Wednesday, 27 Jun

Tillett, Barbara B. “A Taxonomy of Bibliographic Relationships.” Library Resources & Technical Services 35 (2), Apr 1991: 151-158.

1st in a series of 4 articles based on Tillett’s dissertation.

Re-read for Topic Maps and GP cause I’m geeky like that. First read 25-26 Jan 07.

I also read a bunch of articles about Topic Maps, but I will spare you since I want no one as confused as I ended up. I actually thing I have a decent grasp in them conceptually (as a beginner, anyway) but all the articles are using assorted versions of the standard, or the DTD vs. the schema, and so on, which makes it real difficult when you start actually writing syntax and expecting validation.

If you want TM references let me know but most are available on the open Web.

Thursday, 28 Jun

Tillett, Barbara B. “Bibliographic Relationships: An Empirical Study of the LC Machine-Readable Records.” Library Resources & Technical Services 36 (2), Apr 1992: 162-188.

4th in a series of 4 articles based on Tillett’s dissertation.

Read for Topic Maps and GP cause I’m geeky like that. Yes, I skipped the 3rd article for now, “The History of Linking Devices.” I will read it but it serves no purpose for my Topic Maps assignment.

I did bring the following home today, though, to trace some of the references she made in her articles:

Tillett, Barabara Ann Barnett. Bibliographic Relationships: Towards a Conceptual Structure of Bibliographic Information used in Cataloging. Ph.D. diss., University of California, 1987.

Crawford, Walt. Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large 7 (8), July 2007 [pdf]

Friday, 29 Jun

Pepper, Steve and Geir Ove Grønmo. Towards a General Theory of Scope. 2002.

For Topic Maps.

Saturday, 30 Jun

Kauffman, Bill. Bye, Bye, Miss American Empire; Or, the sweet smell of secession. Orion July/Augusut 2007.

A very interesting article on the topic of secession as it makes it way back into conversation in the US. [I only mean interesting in the broadest and vaguest of senses; I am making no value judgements with its use.]

Found at 3 quarks daily.

Is the replication of information a form of activism, and can it even be so?

I am assuming that most of you are aware of the current flap over the posting, printing, displaying, and reproduction of the 16-byte hexadecimal number that is one of the cryptographic keys that—with some more knowledge; the number is not in itself magical—can unlock the encryption of HD and Blu-Ray DVDs and, thus, allow for the copying of them. [See Wikipedia article.]

Some of my friends have even participated by posting the number on their blogs, perhaps even ordering a t-shirt.

I would like to ask you to read this [i d e a n t: “Rebellion by Numbers“] before finishing this post. It is not required but it is what shifted my thoughts in this direction. It is also more elegant that I can be, and links to several other writers.

Prime caveat: I do not mean to criticize those who have publicly reproduced this number. In fact, in some way, I applaud you. I, too, do not believe that numbers should be generally ownable property. But it is far more complex than that.

Having worked on a nuclear missile site in my earlier days I do not even want to think about this kind of “activism” getting hold of the PAL keys and spreading them around because someone thinks the military should not “own” these numbers. Now, while I don’t think they would actually claim to own these numbers, that delicacy would not prevent your swift removal to a detention camp or, perhaps even, your execution as a traitor to your country.

“Ownership” is only a small part of the issue here. Nonetheless, that is not my concern.

My concern centers around the last several and, in particular, on the last paragraph of Mejias’ post.

When activism is defined solely in terms of the exchange of information, we are reducing the options available for acting. That is how an encryption key (information in its purest form) was easily converted into a “subversive message” whose replication and dissemination was seen as a revolutionary act. As long as we’ve had media —and I’m afraid emerging “social” media don’t pose a significant alternative— we’ve seen this dynamic: the replication of information has itself come to define what it means to act, has become the source of meaning. The individual goes from being a social actor to an intersection of information flows. She possesses more information than ever before (about global warming, about genocidal poverty, about the false pretenses under which wars are started), but all she can do is replicate and pass on this information. The purer the information (09 F9 …), the more efficient the activism.

I feel that this may be one of the biggest [sets of] questions for our age and, particularly, for librarianship.

When is the replication of information activism?

Can it even be activisim?

If so, is it efficient?

It seems that the replication of information may [or should be] be a necessary condition for activism, but it does not seem to be sufficient to me. Perhaps there are some (small?) sets of circumstances where the simple act of replication of information constitutes activism; perhaps this current case is even one of them. But it seems to me that further action [of certain sorts] would clearly magnify the efficacy of the activism. Perhaps actual letters to your elected representatives, letters to your local newspapers to attempt to bring the issue to the attention of more of the citizenry, …?

Is this form of cyber-movement primarily a way to make people feel good about themselves? “I did something. I participated.”

Please. I do not mean to point fingers. I include myself in this—or even a lesser “active” group—as I have done nothing.

But truly—as Mejias and others ask—what other causes are there? What other issues of importance? Perhaps even of far more importance? In some ways this is a “free speech” issue, among others. But what about active police suppression of peaceful protesters for the last several years? Poverty, hunger, lack of medical care, wars of aggression in the name of democracy? All of these seem far more important to me than some DVD encryption key.

I’m not sure I’m even up to the task of engaging in this question; certainly not as well as I’d like. Someone like Rory Litwin or Jessamyn West are far better qualified than me. Nonetheless, I believe that these are some of the fundamental questions of our age, and that as librarians we have a responsibility to honestly and seriously—in a nuanced and critical way—ask, “Is the replication of information a form of activism?”, along with its associated questions.

Schlock! vs. The Atom and Eve

This evening I finished watching a movie I started last night, Schlock! The Secret History of American Movies (2001). Pretty interesting history of exploitation films and larger changes in American society. But on the DVD I rented—in the extras—is something even better:

The Atom and Eve.

By the Connecticut Yankee Atomic Power Company, 1966.

Oh. My. Freakin’. God.

It’s a bit over 9 minutes long and is referred to in the notes as “simultaneously hilarious and horrifying, “The Atom and Eve” epitomizes the lethal and consumerist “straight” culture the exploiteers rebelled against.”

Holy crap. No kidding, Batman.

[Oops. Meant to say some more.] If you are (were) from New England, you would be more likely to have seen this consumerist sales pitch for nuclear power [back in the day, anyway]. It was the promo for Connecticut Yankee’s (a consortium of 11 power companies in all New England states) 1st reactor to be built at Haddam Neck, CT. Despite the calming allure of blue-clad Eve dancing around all the consumer goods, all the suits towards the end repetitively telling me they had checks and double-checks and that it was “all good” had me worrying again. But, damn, that floating coffee pot in that fully furnished modern kitchen was an awesome appliance. And God forbid, and Jimmy Carter forgive me, but Eve was looking pretty darn hot sliding up in that refrigerator. Ackk! Gah! Pure unadulterated evilness, it was. Decades of the best psychology could dream up and prove effective simply to market a way of life. A highly suspect way of life. And speaking of the nuclear…

I loved how this film [Schlock!] treats Duck and Cover as an exploitation film. The government has been hard at work at scaring the citizenry for a long time. At least all of my life.

The exploitation of fear is a very powerful tool.