Friday, August 26, 2011

Thoughts on Hurricane Irene

Does anyone else feel a range of strange thoughts towards this hurricane? (I find it somewhat odd and scary that I already can envision a monday full of facebook pictures, tweets etc., some genuine, some ironic, of the storm)
First off, I understand that the government wants to protect its image, and who actually knows the true magnitude of the hurricane, but even the cynic in me cannot quell the genuineness and real care our city government evinces in this speeches. I get that politicians, regardless of the situation think of themselves, their career and how a disaster might affect their futures, but Mayor Bloomberg, as well as the others speak with frustrated concern. They feel the need to urge us of the veracity of the danger of the hurricane (for some reason, most of the people I talk to about the hurricane treat it as an adult version of a snow day). I cannot remember the last time I felt pride in my mayor, or sensed his intelligence all (Ok, I can Guiliani post 9/11 but any other commonalities are just vulgar). I usually imagine politicians as formal, as unnecessarily dodgy in their answers,  but Bloomberg is just speaking with authority. He’s just killing this speech, which seems like a small matter in the larger picture, but he’s speaking with such knowledge and power, and such annoyance with the stupid (yes, pretty stupid questions of the jourmalists.). Shadows of C.J. from the West Wing. He gives off the impression that he can barely keep down his annoyance with the inanity of the questions. He said his piece and seriously just wants people to know this matters, people can die. He keeps snapping out like a father who needs to repeat basic safety instructions like don’t touch fire, or the outlets in the house. One feels a but stupid that our mayor, our city’s protector, feels the need to talk to us like such children, but do we really trust people to do everything to stay safe?
Bloomberg also shows no embarrassment to say we are at the whim of nature. As New Yorkers, beside for travel,  we really do not know of the overwhelming, complete power of the weather, of nature. First this earlier introductory earthquake and now what appears to many as a massive storm that will affect, life and death, house and other property, electricity, the workforce, the water, and public transportation. It will shut us down. Force us away from the world of our digital addictions. Sheer us from the advances of civilization we rely on to forget about the instability of life. For us, little in our life besides sickness and death remind us of the precariousness of life, of the sheer and pathetic fact of our physicality. It’s hard to face the fact that our progressive technology cannot protect us from something so elemental.
Not to say that anything necessarily bad will happen in any significant way, who knows, one obviously hopes not, but from the way the government’s talking about the hurricane it feels serious. They have mandated an evacuation in Zone A. It will now be a class b misdemeanor to not listen to this evacuation. This is New York’s first mandated evacuation. History, right here. Also, we always worry about the role of the government in our personal lives, in our money, but for some reason, we all fall back to socialist type governmental roles in times of trouble and need. Cops will walk around the neighborhood, but will not enforce the rule, both because of the lack of man power, but apparently also because when it comes down to it each person will make their own choices, but still, the government dictating where we can and cannot be feels different than the governmental actions we are normally accustomed too.
Bloomberg also spoke of basic human decency, basic human common sense, the character of new yorkers as tough but smart, as people who need not worry about looting because we are not that type of people. When does that happen in politics? Eerily we here this both before and after the specter of death. It feels refreshingly real and urgent. I want to agree with his sentiments, but the planned proliferation of police slightly belies his trust in our decency and common sense, and why not.
None of this takes away from the urgency and dangerous implications of the storm. I guess I still do not feel the exigency of this storm, but rather it just feel’s nice to be taken care of by a government you can trust, to be reminded of the precariousness of existence, even in our technologically advanced society. That deep down, the specter of destruction, of tragedy, though we all hope nothing happens, equalizes all human beings: athletes and fans, performers and those in the crowd, people in low rent apt, in high rent apt, those poor and those rich, at the feet of nature’s destructive, awe-inspiring power.  
May everyone keep safe throughout the whole weekend.
    Thanks for reading,
Joe Talk.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Humility of David Foster Wallace - In response to Maud Newton

A note of introduction: This blog is a response to the article. posted on the side, written by Maud Newton entitled Another Thing to Sort of Pin On David Foster Wallace (Which is already a somewhat lame way to make fun of Foster Wallace.) It’s a fun article about David Foster Wallace, and blogging, but if neither of those topics interest you, then neither will this blog post.
In this blog, I attempted, as much as possible, not to indulge in my obsession with David Foster Wallace. I often quote him, my ideas are clearly mostly watered down versions of his ideas, and my style, if I you can refer to how I write as a style, mimics, weakly, his style. But now, I think it’s time to indulge in some DFW dorkiness to defend some claims made against his writing. Listen, I love DFW, but I think we’ve sainted him too early, and I do think problems exist in his writing, both theoretical and technical problems, but this argument against his writing just seems reductive.  Maud Newton, in her somewhat endearing though ultimately simplistic article, argues that DFW always equivocates in his arguing. He constantly uses qualifiers, changes register from high brow to low brow, and use all sort of verbal tics to make him liked by the audience. This essentially closes the argument by encompassing the whole argument because in truth, she claims, he’s not making an argument but just having a friendly conversation in which he cuts off any possible criticism by alluding to all possible criticisms. In essence, she claims, he makes the arguments through establishing both his intellectual credentials and his home grown normalcy so you trust him completely when he finally makes some kind of ambiguous argument. Newton, as does Geoffrey Dyer goes on to use this as a stepping stone to decry some of the annoying tics of bloggers, which is not the topic here. Here is my straightforward response. Newton and Dyer misunderstand DFW’s rhetorical tools and their usages both in his fiction and his non-fiction.(There are many holes to puncture in Newton's argument, but this should suffice.)
I claim that Newton and Dyer misunderstand DFW’s rhetorical tools in that they believe he uses them either because he cannot transcend the postmodern ironic stance without indulging in naiveté, or he wishes to ingratiate himself so as to not come off as an ass trying to force morality upon us, which to them, lacks directness and bravery in argumentation about important matters. Ultimately though, it’s his and our obsessive need to be liked as opposed to our ability engage in true debate that pushes us to write with qualifiers and in a style that makes you feel like we are just friends, talking, not trying to actually argue for anything.
But, to make an argument based on DFW’s own work, mainly from some of his stories, and his essay Deciderization, I contend that much of these rhetorical tools and examples stem from DFW’s humility, not arrogance, from his clear understanding of the smallness of his opinion relative to the complexity of the topic, of his constant self-doubt regarding his judgments in life, even towards the complexity of topics such as race, eating animals, and abortion. Let us for a minute run with this explanation i.e. that at the root of much what we refer to as DFW’s tics lies humility and not arrogance or an obsessive need to feel liked.
            In his essay, Deciderization¸ DFW explains that we lived in an unprecedented time of total noise in which it becomes increasingly harder to know who to trust, what to read in the news, and how to form an educated opinion on the whole spectrum of issues facing the normal human being. I still, despite my attempts to read up on the topic, understand little in the ways of economics. I cannot remember the last good clear argument on a topic, whether, abortion, or the economy that did not smack of bias, which of course exists in every argument, but what DFW captured so well, was the trouble with forming an opinion in our world. Hence the need for footnotes, and qualifiers, because when it comes down to it, there is no simple argument about whether we should or should not eat meat, or whether we can judge the porn industry, whether McCain is a calculated manipulative politician or a genuine believer in his vision for the country because of the need to take into account too many factors.
Additionally, why do we judge DFW by foreign standards? When did he claim to attempt to write arguments in the old Mark Twain Fashion? Why should we judge his output as if he was an ethical philosopher? In fact, DFW really only contended to make an argument, explicitly, once, in his essay on TV.  In his other writings, he opted to present the complexity of what it means to live as a human being today, as a person bombarded by leftist and right wing propaganda that both kind of sound intelligent, but never seem to present the full picture, as a person who lives in a time in which knowledge and opinions are tenuous at best because we know how entrenched they are in our personal experiences, and how much arrogance about our opinions ruins relationships, causes global issues, and just steeps a person in narcissism.
Here’s another straightforward contention, maybe we shouldn’t outgrow this type of thinking. Maybe we should always cling to this humility in our opinions. Now of course, some decisions must be made in life, but many decisions I make, or many of the beliefs I take do not matter in the larger scheme of things until I insert arrogance into the equation. For most people, it would seem, the question of an abortion remains abstract. Now, despite this fact most people assume an opinion on the matter, which can cause adverse affects, arguments, extremism etc. I would like to contend that DFW understood this problem, he understood that most of the moral quandaries of life are not the moral quandaries philosophers refer to as borderline cases, i.e. those cases that are all but impossible to actually argue for without making fundamentally unfalsifiable assumptions. Instead most of the moral heavy lifting involves how we relate to other human beings, how we feel towards them, how we judge them, how we balance the onslaught of self-centeredness with the need to transcend ourselves. Because most of the moral quandaries Newton wants some direct argumentation on do not affect the normal life of a normal person. That is, until we begin to think we actually fully know the answer to those unanswerable problems.
For DFW, most knowledge should be treated as precarious, as tentative because most knowledge stems from our self-centeredness, which doesn’t always bring harm, it just colors our view always, as a default. I would like to contend that qualifiers battle this self-centered arrogance, the arrogance to not see that my opinion, though internally justified in my being, might actually be wrong. Perhaps then acting upon it without fleshing out all of the sides of the argument, without seeing its complexity takes away the dignity from the human choice.
Again, why should we expect that DFW will answer the issues of abortion, when did he ever attempt to? You cannot fault an author, or an essayist for not writing an opinion on a matter. DFW wrote on what he found interesting, meaningful, relevant to everyday life, and possibly morally instructive, but the morally instructive part came from inside the object under scrutiny not external to it and in some senses, this leveled a stronger argument, which undermines Newton’s point. From the Big Red Son, I came away, if we must feel forced to talk about the practical value of any literature, which appears to be a strange assumption, feeling dirty, like I needed a shower partially because the subtly scathing criticism came from an inside view, from an attempt to not judge, to really immerse the author in the culture under investigation. To talk about the ambivalence, ambiguities, complexities, confrontations that plague these people. He humanizes everything and in doing so provides a lesson in day to day morality, not in the borderlines cases of morality that most ethical philosophers’ cannot give uncontested answers to. The lesson he gives, if a lesson must be given, is one of the complexities of human complexities, how even in the places we normally assume the worst, beats the heart of a human being we can understand and relate to, even find beauty in (the elder cop in the Big Red Son Essay).
 Similarly in his essay on vegetarianism he opts not to give his personal opinion not so as to be liked by all but because it's simply too complex a topic to confidently say one side is right and the other wrong. Instead, he forces us to confront the issue of why we choose what we choose as opposed to attempting to force us to think one way. In our world, do we not need more people like this, more people who see the multi-faceted side of all issues as opposed to those who push one path?
So perhaps, all these annoying tics are really just a smart person’s way to say, “Hey look, here is an issue I care about. It’s complicated, as is pretty much anything important in life, but it still demands our discussion. So let’s try to discuss it like friends, without resorting to simplistic argumentation, or snap judgments, let’s try to first truly understand both side of the topics and then you, as an autonomous dignified human being can draw whatever conclusion you want because that’s how we respect each others autonomy. Not by brow beating us into opinions, but by presenting the whole picture so we can then choose for ourselves.” Maybe.
I apologize for the hastiness of this post. In the next post, I hope to provide more examples of some real moral claims found both in DFW’s fiction and non-fiction, and also to hone in on some more subtle arguments Newton makes, but I believe this provides one quick answer to a reductive claim against an author who fought tooth and nail to bring morality back into literature.
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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Heschel on Prayer - Add on to Shul Hopping #4

  In my most recent Shul Hopping piece I discussed the foreignness of the Conservative Judaism experience. In some ways, I felt that I swiped at them too harshly given the limited medium one small article affords. I hope to both justify and mitigate my criticisms in this post. First, I think it became clear that I feel a discomfort with rich synagogues. In general, I feel ambivalent about religious institutions spending inordinate amounts of money on their sanctuaries. I know I fall back on David Simon too much, but something stings me about the disproportionate use of money spent on cement and concrete and not on human beings. I understand that a lofty building engenders lofty thoughts, but I can’t shake the feeling that we sacrifice possible transcendent thoughts for the urgency of charitable causes.
  However, I cannot be blind to the fact that throughout the ages Jews have poured money into their sanctuaries. The holiest of them, the ancient temple used gold and other precious materials from all around the world. I remember once, walking through the Vatican both admiring their collected (stolen, plundered?) riches, but also feeling a sense of disgust at their spoils, (Could we not solve world hunger if we sold one purple marble bathtub?) only to realize that the Jewish temple itself, while it did not pillage other civilizations, spent the equivalent, with inflation and all, of a small nation's economy on it's structure. I think all religions feels this ambivalence towards materialism. On the one hand, we respect the ascetic who lives on bread and salt alone, who looks to god alone for support, and yet on the other hand, we respect those who can use their money for good, who can make a palace fitting for god. For me though, I err in the middle, of taking care of the needs of people before the needs of God, but as a person who hasn’t really made a substantial amount of money in his lifetime, I feel that I i can only talk presumptuously on this matter.
    The second, more substantive point, revolved around the performance, rote-like feel of the service. The fact that the cantor prayed towards the congregation, the instruments, the fact that the community was emphasized over the loneliness of each human being before God, the glass like feel of the service chafed against my need for unbounded spirituality. In the first draft of the piece, I felt presumptuous as to these claims so I mitigated them in an attempt to view the service from their side. Who was I to criticize the conservative movement after one visit? Especially after a visit in which I acted as half-outsider, half-insider? But, auspiciously, I began reading Abraham J. Heschel’s book on prayer, Man’s Quest For God the week after going to Park Avenue Synagogue and he levels very similar critiques against Conservative services in general. Heschel makes a few claims that relate specifically to the Conservative movement, but one word of qualification before we engage in criticism.
    While writing a critique of the service, I attempted to understand why I felt more let down by Conservative Judaism than anything I had experienced up until that point. I believe it relates to the point I made about kiddush foods and conservative Judaism. If Conservative Judaism allows themselves more leeway in regards to the tradition, then I assumed they could fix certain problems in the prayer services more easily, but it appears their attempted solutions did not work the way they intended, or diverted attention from larger, more systemic issues with prayer, as Heschel points out:
Modern Jews suffer from a neurosis which I should like to call the Sidder complex. True, the text of the prayer book presents difficulties to many people. but the crisis of prayer is not a problem of the text. It is a problem of the soul. The Siddur must not be used as a scapegoat. A revision of the prayer book will not solve the crisis of the prayer. What we need is a revision of the soul, a new heart rather than a new text.
Here, Heschel points out that despite the changes in text, the changes that include our the addition of foremothers, and prayers for Non-Jews, i.e. political problems and answers, these will not solve spiritual problems. I felt this acutely in a Park Ave Synagogue in which I easily connected politically to the inclusions of woman, and certain prayers, but felt aloof from the actual religious service, but where does this aloofness stem from. Heschel, again:
It is not the primary purpose of prayer “to promote Jewish unity.” Prayer is a personal duty, and an intimate act which cannot be delegated either to the cantor or to the whole community. We pray with the whole community, and every one of us by himself. We must make clear to every Jew that his duty is to pray rather than to be a part of an audience.
Here, Heschel speaks to shul as a communal experience which he believes overlooks the main part of the shul experience: one of a lonely soul coming together as a group, but still alone, pouring out everything before God. Heschel then goes on to address the performative aspect of Conservative prayer:
It was in the interest of bringing about order and decorum that in some synagogues the rabbi and cantor decided to occupy a position facing the congregation. It is quite possible that a re-examination of the whole problem of worship would lead to the conclusion that the innovation was an error. The essence of the prayer is not decorum but rather an even in the inner life of men....A cantor who faces the holiness of the Ark rather than the curiosity of man will realize that his audience is God. He will learn to realize that his task is not to entertain but to represent the people of Israel. He will be carried away into moments in which he will forget the world, ignore the congregation and be overcome by the awareness of Him in Whose presence he stands. The congregation then will hear and sense that the cantor is not giving a recital but worshipping God, that to pray does not mean to listen to a singer but to identify oneself with what is being proclaimed in their name.
    I cannot speak to the internal feelings of those worshipper in Park Avenue Synagogue. As I said in the article, I found them all genuine, friendly, and passionate, but I can say that Heschel’s words ring true for me. Consequently, it was hard to partake, because of my biases, in this more performance like prayer.
    In the end, despite this criticism, I think it is important to realize that as an Orthodox Jew, I have denigrated, whether in my mind or in conversation, Conservative Judaism throughout my life, and from initial comments from like-minded friends, many of us grew up with this bias.  We are not exposed to Conservative Jews or Judaism, which it to our detriment and loss. To us I say go visit a Conservative Shul, go to talk to a Conservative Jew and you will realize that our discriminatory actions and stereotypes are baseless. I have grown to respect Conservative Judaism as a passionate part of the larger Jewish Nation, one that struggles with questions of modernity in ways that other denominations do not. Now, I feel nothing but respect and awe for their services and politics, even if I cannot personally fully connect.I believe all Jews should shul hop in the sense that it allows us to see the other denominations not as less than in any way, but as different, as commanding our respect. The more we understand other people, I have found, the more we grow in respect, and the more we understand our own biases and ourselves.
Thanks for reading,