Saturday, May 30, 2009
Infinite Thought interviews Badiou, here.
Singer's argument, as first laid out in an essay in 1971, isn't hard to follow. "If it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it ... If I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing." As he added, however, the "uncontroversial appearance" of this argument is deceptive. Considerations of distance, or of how many potential rescuers there might be, are irrelevant to Singer: the child you see dying of malnutrition or a preventable disease on the foreign news has as much of a claim on you as the child in the pond. Spending your surplus income on consumer treats rather than efforts to end extreme poverty, he concludes, isn't greatly different morally from leaving the toddler to drown.People in rich countries who wish to act decently should, this implies, be giving away a much larger share of their earnings than almost any are willing to contemplate.
Singer says: When I published Animal Liberation, I thought - and I still think - that the argument was completely irrefutable, rationally, and that people should have just said, 'Oh, yes, well, this is obviously true, we've got to become vegetarian or vegan and change many things.' Well, some people have done that - I have no idea what the tally is, but it must be tens or hundreds of thousands of people. But, you know, it's still a minority view.
That actually is the effect the book had on me. I bought a copy for 10 cents at a tag sale in Townshend, Vermont, while visiting my father in Newfane; read the book overnight; realized my only justification for eating meat was philosophically ludicrous; became a vegetarian overnight.
My justification for eating meat, since you was ask, was (this embarrassing): Non-human animals kill other animals for food. Humans are animals. So why shouldn't we eat meat? (Or rather, strictly speaking: why shouldn't we kill for meat? Why shouldn't we let other people kill animals for us and sell us the corpses?)
Non-human meat, presumably, but this was more in the way of a latent assumption than something I had ever spent much time analysing. Which was exactly the point. When we think about moral questions, we don't normally ask whether something is right by observing behaviour of non-human animals; while a great many people were outraged by a woman who had octuplets she could not afford to rear, no one suggested she should eat 6 or 7 of them ("Nature's solution"), and we can easily multiply types of behaviour we shouldn't dream of taking as models. So what made eating meat a special case? Well, um, the fact that I had been brought up from childhood eating meat and had never bothered to think about it.
The question that let me to file this in the drafts folder, though, was: all right, but why is it that simply seeing that this was a bad argument was enough to make me change? The force of the argument has had no effect whatsoever on any member of my family; my mother, father and sister went on cheerfully eating meat, the arguments as presented by me carried no weight, and to the best of my knowledge none ever bothered to read Singer.
It's not that they thought they had good arguments; arguments are not the kind of thing that matter in my family. All were animal lovers, but love of animals was also not the kind of thing that carried through. The power of convention took precedence over all other considerations - and here we come, really, to the crux of the matter. My family are not people with a deepseated horror of being influenced by mere power of convention; they do not look at each common assumption in the light of millennia of oppression of women, or the longstanding claims for "naturally inferior races", or the still widespread prejudice against homosexuals; their heroes are not people like Socrates, Mill, Shaw, Russell, people with the courage to think through an issue without regard for the habits of their society, the ridicule of their contemporaries.
John Lanchester (yes, it's Lanchester week) recently spoke of René Girard's theory of desire as imitation: we don't simply desire something for itself, but in imitation of a model who desires it. I should like to think I had a love of rationality for its own sake, but that love of reason is indissociable from my love of persons who have loved it and shown courage and resolution in acting upon its dictates.
Mill was brought up by a father with an extensive knowledge of philosophy and commitment to rational argument. (Amartya Sen has pointed out that the rationalism of Mill père did not extend to the use of evidence, hence of primary sources, in his assessment of the peoples of India; as a rationalist, however, Sen is in the happy position of being able to feel that the principles of argument are not discredited by a flawed authority.) Mill's education makes his indifference to conventional wisdom understandable. But Russell!
Russell was born in 1872. His parents were Utilitarians (J S Mill was his godfather). Russell's mother died of diphtheria in 1874; his father died in 1876. His father's will - I am now relying on memory, since I don't see the details online - assigned guardianship of Russell and his older brother Frank to two Utilitarians; one, his brother's tutor, was an avowed atheist. Russell's grandmother, the Countess Russell, was a devout Christian (a Presbyterian acc. to Wikipedia); she succeeded in having the will overturned and getting custody of the children. And Russell - I suppose it helped that he had an extraordinary gift for mathematics - somehow reasoned his way past the mass of ill-founded, inconsistent, generally accepted beliefs, with nothing in the early years but Euclid, as far as I can see, to stand by him. (His grandmother did give him a Bible with this verse from Exodus inscribed on the fly-leaf: Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil; it may have had consequences she did not anticipate.)
At any rate. When I read Animal Liberation I did think that Singer's arguments were correct. If you an accept an argument as correct, of course, you do not have to act on this, and most people don't. The price of failing to do so, though, is that you then have to live with the fact that you are nothing like the people you most admire.
Most of the time, living up to the people we most admire is hard work. How can I ever live up to Mill, who ran for Parliament in 1862 on a platform that included women's suffrage? How I can I possibly live up to Russell? How can I possibly live up to Amartya Sen? But let's say I'm a cash-strapped graduate student. I'm living primarily on peanut butter and jam sandwiches. The only time eating meat is an option is when I go out to dinner. So all I have to do is order vegetarian curries at Indian restaurants, or pasta al pesto at Italian restaurants, and mention to hosts that I'm a vegetarian, and at a stroke I have transformed dietary practices (which never interested me much in the first place) into an expression of solidarity with people of a moral stature I can never hope to attain. Wow. If only life were always that easy.
Now Singer, as far as I can remember, never invoked great rationalists of the past in Animal Liberation; I don't think he said "Those of us who love Socrates, who love Spinoza, who love Mill, who love Russell, will not want to find ourselves, in the face of compelling arguments, siding with the multitude." I also don't think he said "Do not thou follow a multitude to do evil." But anyone who has read, as it might be, Mill on the subjection of women, will be repelled to find him or herself going through the kinds of logical contortion which were once performed to justify denying women the vote, education, access to the professions. The thing that's disgusting is not eating meat; the thing that's disgusting is giving head room to crap.
The thing that's interesting, anyway, is not the fact that this particular reader was influenced in this particular way. The thing that's interesting is that this particular triangulation of desire seems in fact to be more outré than vegetarianism itself, in fact than any kind of mere practical consideration of animal welfare.
Some years ago David Foster Wallace wrote a piece, Consider the Lobster, for Gourmet magazine; the piece went on at great length about the evidence for the sentience of the lobster, the extent to which apparent signs of suffering in a creature being boiled to death should be taken as evidence of suffering, the extent to which this should affect our eating habits. DFW's primary concern, it seemed, was to avoid sounding preachy, to avoid sounding as though he had any answers. To this reader, the piece displayed a startling degree of willingness to give head room to crap. But what's really going on? Well, there is an implied triangulation of desire, in which the desired object is behaving in a way that implies no criticism of anyone else's behaviour. The implied model is not someone who will not follow a multitude to do evil; the model is someone who doesn't want to make the multitude uncomfortable. DFW can't just say: This is the evidence; I love Socrates, I love Spinoza, I love Mill, I love Russell, so I can't eat the fuckers. When I say "can't", I mean: the assumption is, presumably, that the multitude just is the multitude. In 100,000 readers you will get 4 who respond not just to the appeal to reason, but to the reminder of great outliers of the past. (We're talking Poisson distribution, not normal, and the Poisson is not much use to publishers of a magazine.)
Jonathan Safran Foer has been writing about vegetarianism. I read an interview on The Young and the Hungry:
What made you decide to become a vegetarian?
I've become a vegetarian many times in my life. I've gone on and off, and different times have been inspired by different reasons. I started when I was nine, very simply because I didn't want to hurt animals. It was totally uncomplicated. And then as I've gotten older the reasoning has changed. I've thought more about environmental issues, workers rights issues, sustainability issues, the wastefulness. At the end of the day it's probably still, mostly, because of animals. I guess what I mean is the older I've grown, the stronger the argument against eating meat has become in my eyes.
You mentioned that you were vegan for a bit, but it didn't stick. Why didn't it work?
I'm going to try it again now. It didn't stick because my wife became pregnant and she had to eat certain things, or we felt at the time that she did, and it wasn't fair for me to take a step in a direction that I think she would want to as well. Also it's very hard. Vegetarianism is very easy. Anyone who says it's hard really isn't trying, in New York. Veganism is hard. It separates you from a lot of social occasions. I don't think there's any restaurant in the city where you can't eat easily as a vegetarian. Any steakhouse will have enough good things to eat. Eating as a vegan would preclude a lot of restaurants and a lot of occasions.
Anyone familiar with JSF's style of interview will know that he - I was going to say goes out of his way to sound like a friendly, accessible, normal human being, but maybe that's just rampant intentionalism. My understanding is that JSF studied philosophy at Princeton; it's not, I take it, that he is unfamiliar with philosophical rigour in ethical matters; it's just, it seems, that this is a style of discourse that might come across as judgmental and unfriendly. So the implied object of desire is not action chosen for the right reasons, following the example of past rejecters of ill-founded convention; the implied object of desire is action which implies friendly accommodation to others who act differently, following the example of unthreatening people who pursue courses of action without "imposing their views".
Have not read Singer's new book so am in no position to comment on it, and the battery is about to go.
Friday, May 29, 2009
I've just come across a link to a piece in the NYT on DFW's commencement speech at Kenyon College. Not only does no one invite me to give me a commencement speech, schools I have actually attended are strangely unkeen to have me come and teach for them - even when staff at the school are enthusiastic about my work.
Early last year I wrote to X at a school I had attended for a year. X had contacted me about a year earlier speaking of his enthusiasm for TLS; we had corresponded; I was not sure I had the energy to haul coal from the cellar for another Prussian winter, so wondered whether the school might have accommodation and some kind of teaching I could do. The school had closed one of its campuses but still owned the site; I thought there might be a place there I could live.
X apparently made inquiries, but thought I must like Berlin so much better, and also thought I would surely be better off teaching creative writing in a college or something. I replied:
It's terribly kind of you to look into this.
It's hard to know what to say to your questions. If a publisher bought one of these books I would probably prefer to stay where I am (thought I wouldn't back out at the last minute if I had agreed to go). But I have no idea how long that might take. I had an image in my mind of the empty campus, covered in snow; it seemed as though it might be possible to combine solitude with teaching.
I don't think the notionally higher-powered places you mention would be better. A job that did not involve working with words would probably be better for writing - something with animals, or plants, or food. Or bicycles. That's harder to set up than teaching because it falls foul of a lot of cultural stereotypes.
I've just taken delivery of all the things I put in storage 8 years ago, so pretty worn out; realised I'd been shockingly delinquent in not replying sooner. Picture me surrounded by boxes and a battered piano.
Answer came there none.
I read somewhere that Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying in 6 weeks while working as a night security guard. That's a job I would love to have, but I just don't have the connections.
Thursday, May 28, 2009
I'm afraid the various things that went wrong with translations are really fall-out from my decision to sign with the Wylie Agency in August 2000. I had a meeting with Andrew Wylie, Sarah Chalfont and Zoe Pagnamenta in which the agency's strength as an international player was stressed: unlike other agencies, which do business through sub-agents, the Wylie Agency deals directly with foreign publishers, and is able to be a better advocate (it was claimed) as a result. I was assured that the agency could coordinate publicity set up by the many foreign publishers of the book, and was also assured that the agency could coordinate translators.
This seemed desperately important at the time - I could not see how I would ever get any writing done if I had to deal singlehanded with 15 or more foreign publishers, so leaving that in competent hands seemed more important (odd as it may seem) than finding the agent who was most enthusiastic about my work. After all, if I want to write a book, I already have people whose opinion I respect who are enthusiastic about my work, and even that matters much less than having a clear block of time free of distractions. So I signed with the agency, and tried to cash in on these offers to coordinate and orchestrate, and very junior members of staff told me they could do nothing about the translators because the agency had not done the deal. This was all horrible and in the end I was not sane any more, but Me, Samuel - this is hard not to love.
Are there better ways of fighting obesity, assuming it is worth fighting? Probably not. [!] Education would probably have very little effect, because almost all people know that being fat has bad consequences and that eating foods rich in sugar and butter and not exercising increase the likelihood of becoming obese. Obesity is concentrated in the lower middle class, which contains a high proportion of people who have very high discount rates, which prevents them from giving significant weight to the future consequences of present behavior.
Children may be ignorant about the costs of obesity and the effects on it of sugar, but because of lack of self-control and children's inability to imagine themselves as middle-aged adults, I doubt that trying to educate them in the dangers of drinking sugar-sweetened beverages would be effective.
A tax on calories, or on high-calorie foods or ingredients, would be difficult to design and administer and would impose welfare losses, without significant offsetting wealth gains, on thin people. A further problem is that fattening foods, including sugar-flavored sodas, have fallen in price over time relative to fruits and vegetables and other healthful foods, so that a tax on calories would be highly regressive.A modest measure would be to bar the sale or other provision of sugar-flavored sodas and other fattening foods in schools, and the substitution of nutritious low-calorie school lunches for the present fare. In addition, more school time could be allotted to physical education, which in recent years has diminished in most schools. The cost of these measures would be modest and they would have some effect in reducing obesity.
I'm a bit baffled by this. I'm baffled by the 'probably not' - where P says 'probably not' I would say 'almost certainly'. I'm baffled by the examples he uses to back up this pessimism.
I wouldn't have thought any fat child needed much help imagining the costs of obesity; Roald Dahl seems to me to be spot on in his view that children see the fat as natural butts of cruel jokes. (He attributed his success in part to his willingness to consult the tastes of his audience; one was the taste for cruel jokes, another an obsession with food...)
Less time may be allocated to PE than was once the case; part of the problem, though, is that quite a lot of PE is taken up with team sports - that is, the sort of game where the reluctant player divides his/her time between standing about in the outfield and standing in line waiting his/her turn to kick or bat. The less one's inclination for the pastime, the greater the likelihood that one's teammates will place one where one can do least harm to the team (stand where the ball is unlikely to go, kick/bat last, and so on). [This does not, of course, exhaust the number of sports participation in which can easily be reconciled with a minimum of physical activity - any high school graduate can easily multiply examples.] This really isn't much use in forming the habit of regular exercise; most adults who exercise regularly choose something that does not require assembling (as it might be) two softball teams to get off the ground.
I wonder whether this really is so hard to fix. Suppose one offered all children this option: for each hour of PE, a child can choose to substitute two hours on a treadmill / exercise bicycle / other before or after school - in other words, an aerobic activity that can be performed while reading a book or watching TV. The sort of child who likes team sports - who plays games voluntarily outside of school - won't be attracted; the sort of child who hates sport will get an early start on the kind of physical activity that will serve it best as a normally sedentary adult.
[Note that this solution, far from imposing undeserved hardship on the naturally active, makes life much more agreeable for them - they can play sport among themselves, without the demoralizing complement of conscripts.]
With regard to obesity among the lower middle class, I think I had better not comment on its high discounts; it may be that these prevent such persons from much giving weight to future consequences. What I will say, though, is that the business of forming or breaking a habit seems to me, at least, to be a mechanical thing; the likelihood of success depends more on the effectiveness of the mechanism than on the importance of the result.
During the winter of 2004-5 I moved to a sublet a five-minute walk from my 24-hour gym; I went to the gym at least once a day, often twice, because it was very easy to do so, and was down from 61kg (132 pounds) to 50kg (about 110 pounds) within four months. I later moved to an apartment which was, I suppose, a 20-minute walk away, or 10 minutes by bicycle; over the next 2+ years I went less and less often, despite many resolves to do better, spent too much time blogging, put on weight. Last October I moved into an apartment with no internet access which was, I suppose, a 10-minute walk from the gym; I missed perhaps one day a month. In March the gym was forced to close because its landlord had cut off its water (long story); I joined another, 5 minutes away but open a mere 7-11 weekdays, 10-8 (!!!! shame!!!!) on weekends and whenever a public holiday gives them an excuse to close early; I suppose I miss three or four days a month. (I often used to go the old gym at 11pm; sometimes I would wake up at 4 and think, oh, I won't get any work done, might as well go to the gym. Now I wake up at 4 or 5 and the gym won't be open for hours. The sort of person who asks, at this point, why I don't go for a bike ride or a walk or a run in, um, the street is still not understanding: the point of forming a habit is that you then act, not out of a calculation of utility, but out of force of habit.)
Now, the resolution to get more exercise and lose weight is one of the most common New Year's Resolutions, and all kinds of ingenious solutions are offered. But it is by no means the norm for people to sublet their apartment and move to one 5 minutes from their gym. Gyms offer New Year's deals to lure people in, safe in the knowledge that most of these memberships will not be put to use for more than a month or so - but we don't, in fact, see a rash of ads in Craigslist, say, for short-term lets a mere 5 minutes from this or that gym. We also don't see gyms offering special New Year's deals including 24-hour access. We don't see gyms inviting the membership to staff the place on rotation without pay over the graveyard shift so everyone can have 24-hour access. We don't see gyms offering a list of local sublets in the run-up to the New Year. And we also don't normally see people taking out a New Year's sublet because the park / bike path / jogging trail / public pool is just across the street. We just don't. The idea that you should socially engineer your life, that you can shift your project from virtually certain failure to virtually certain success, simply by moving, is not part of the landscape.
So I think I would surmise that people who work during daylight hours, but who do not perform heavy physical labour, are generally at a disadvantage when it comes to offsetting food and alcohol consumption by exercise, and members of the lower middle class are hit more heavily because less likely to be able to afford facilities that make it possible to exercise after dark. Children being the drain on time and money that they are, parents are less likely than other adults to set a good example of the active lifestyle in any case, and I would expect members of the lower middle class to be harder hit. I would also surmise that, the further you go down the socio-economic scale, the higher a barrier is presented by the kind of payment structure favoured by gyms. If walk-ins were widely available, if you could work out anytime, anywhere, for an hour, for the price of a hamburger, we'd see a wider social range of people taking part.
[Asides: 1. An old Doonesbury cartoon comes to mind: Jane Fonda offers free work-outs to migrant labourers, who are neglecting the glutes. 2. Berlin in fact has another series of gyms, McFit, which are open 24 hours, at a membership of 16.90 euros a month.]
So I would agree with Posner that education would be unlikely to help, but I doubt that it follows that nothing can be done. Making YMCAs and YWCAs open 24 hours, if necessary by using volunteers for the graveyard shift, is the kind of thing I would expect to help. If McDonalds USA branched out and established McFits throughout the land I would expect that to help. Gyms sometimes offer a creche on an extremely occasional basis; suppose it were the norm for gyms to offer a full-time creche, perhaps offering free memberships in exchange for staffing of the creche? I would expect that to help.
I should perhaps say, at this point, that I don't actually think that exercise programs are the panacea. I have a friend who has been careful about his diet for decades but loathes exercise because it's so boring. He had an exercise bicycle for a while and read on the bike, but he gave up because it was hard to find the kind of book that was shallow enough to lend itself to reading on a bike. He and his wife recently acquired a dog; X insisted that the dog must interfere with his life in no way. No sooner had the animal arrived than X found himself taking it for walks in Central Park and having a lovely time.
I have now reached the point in this post where I realise that another couple of thousand words are required to do justice to the subject, and so turn to the blogger's best friend, the Drafts Folder. (Would he had blotted a thousand... well, at a guess there are 7 drafts for every published post.) But no no no. This is not the time for perfectionism. At this very moment readers may be kicking themselves, wondering how their New Year's resolution to exercise more, lose weight, be good, failed yet again - this is not the time to withhold.
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
I don't think this is rational. I think the assumptions are false. But these beliefs seem to have no influence on whatever it is that pushes one into writing a blog post.
I thought of this again after reading yet another piece by John Lanchester in the LRB. I first heard of Lanchester on an ill-fated fellowship at the Cullman Center at the NYPL: Patrick Keefe talked about the brilliance of JL's The Debt to Pleasure, which I had not read, so I bought the book and sure enough this anatomy of a lunacy is a brilliant book. Have I ever mentioned it in a post? No, because naturally everyone disposed to be dazzled already knows about it.
Since then I've read many of Lanchester's columns in the LRB - he specialises in pieces on the financial industry, though he does tackle other topics. The way it works is, I pick up the LRB at a newsagent, or go to the website; think: OH, they've got a piece by JOHN LANCHESTER, how FABULOUS! Buy LRB / read LRB online, depending on circumstances. Never bother to link to them on the blog (this is not the stuff of which great bloggers are made) because everyone disposed to be interested is already, obviously, keeping an eye out for new Lanchester sightings in the LRB.
Lanchester has a new piece in the LRB, anyway, on the Scottish banking system, here. Before reading the piece, I had no idea why this particularly mattered; thanks to JL, I now know that the Royal Bank of Scotland is, by asset size, the biggest company in the world; that RBS got an injection of capital of £20 billion from the British government after the weekend of October 11-12 last year, giving the British taxpayer a 60% ownership of the company; that it has since realised it needs more, the 'more' bringing taxpayer ownership to 95% - and there is, of course, much more, and, what can I say? It's great. By 'great' I mean something like, this restores my faith in reviews, there actually are reviewers who are not afraid to get their feet wet, Lanchester goes on to give an explanation of why mergers and takeovers tend to destroy value yet are attractive to the stock market, spreading, if not sweetness, then light. (If you know your LRB, you'll know that the website makes it easy to check out previous pieces by an author, so you can read Lanchester on video games, Wal-Mart and much much more.)
It would be better, of course, to write a proper review of The Debt to Pleasure, but the book is in an apartment which has been sublet till the end of July, and I writing from a cafe, and what with one thing and another circumstances are not propitious. My conscience does bother me, but not as much as it would bother me if I went on holding out for the perfect moment.
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Banville's review is odd in various ways. He seems to feel that something is badly wrong if a writer is not warmhearted and candid. (Qualities for which, of course, readers have been flocking to Beckett for close to a century.) Joyce, it seems, was manipulative, cunning, cold and a cad - unlike Beckett, the Man of Feeling.
There's an odd determination to reclaim Beckett for banality. Here's Banville on Beckett in Paris:
Despite poverty and a propensity to melancholy--as the narrator of From an Abandoned Work says, "an unhappiness like mine, there's no annihilating that"--Beckett in those years lived the not-uncongenial life of the artistic expatriate, eating and drinking in the bars of Montparnasse and spending much time in the merry surroundings of the quarter's numerous brothels.
("spending much time in the merry surroundings of the quarter's numerous brothels" - well, if Beckett were with us today I feel sure he would enjoy this, which you can't say of every review)
I was going to comment on other oddities, but weary bafflement triumphs.
Thursday, May 14, 2009
Here is part of Beeston's translation of a passage by the Sufi Ibn Ganim (d. 628/1279),
The cheetah's counsel.
While I was immersed in this deep thought, suddenly the cheetah addressed me, saying, "You know me to be proud and of a haughty temper; in the chase I am not like the horse, or the lion pouncing on his prey. Because of my high resolution and lofty ambition I keep watch on my objective, while sitting close to my master, and outmatch my quarry by dint of my guile. But if I do not catch it at the first attempt, I am most terribly angry with myself; my folk then try to comfort me (but I will not be comforted), and apply a whole world of coaxing to me. My wrath is due simply to my shortcoming and ineffectiveness. So if a man sets himself to hunt perfection and fails, or calls on himself to perform noble deeds and then shrinks back, he ought to be proudly angry with himself, and turn to repentance and start again; he must not be content with lowly ambition in himself, nor with vacillation of will-power.
[In his introduction, Beeston comments that the extract, "the speech of the cheetah, or hunting leopard, displays a close acquaintanceship with that animal - its affectionateness to its master, its sulks when it fails to make a catch, &c." - a comment which somehow gives the impression that Beeston himself had extensive experience of the animal.]
Saturday, May 9, 2009
This is what I'd like to see as an addition to the current system for book distribution. People often tag me on Facebook or ask for my list of top 10 books for some yearly round-up; no one ever asks me to come up with a list of 10 or 20 books and undertake to get 5 copies of each stocked in at least one non-bookselling retailer.
If that were the model, we can imagine a map like the one above, with each numbered retailer associated with a) a book and b) the person who recommended it. (Or, of course, 1+n books, 1+n persons.) People who walked in off the street would see a book they might otherwise not come across - people looking for a book, or for recommendations by X, might come into a shop/restaurant they might otherwise not have visited.
I have not, as I might, improved the shining hour by tweaking the map in Illustrator with icons of books that might be associated with each shop or restaurant, but I think it's obvious how easily this could be done.