Sunday, July 25, 2010

Disgusting but memorable

Watching the DVD of Deleuze interviews called L'Abécédaire, in the "C comme Culture" section I suddenly noticed a disgusting detail: Deleuze's fingernails are uncommonly long, wide, and misshapen - as if on a Mandarin manqué. They look too long for plucking guitar strings, but I may be wrong about that.

Anyway, since today is one of my be-nice practice days, I felt obliged to call myself on this one: "What do you mean, disgusting ? Deleuze will have had his reasons for keeping his fingernails like that. What do you care about Deleuze's fingernails ?" etc. etc.

With my eyes right up to the screen to check the fingernails, I replayed over and over a section where they can be seen. I heard this over and over:
Dès qu'on fait une chose, il s'agit d'en sortir. [pause] Il se faut aussi d'y rester dans le sortir. Alors, rester dans la philosophie, c'est aussi comme en sortir de la philosophie. Oui ... [pause] sortir de la philosophie, ca veut pas dire faire autre chose. C'est pour ça qu'il faut sortir en restant là-dedans. [pause] C'est pas faire autre chose, c'est pas en faire un rebond.
With this curious mantra in my ears, I sunk deep into program-notes mode* and arrived at the following considerations. I think I now understand better how structuralism and deconstructionism came into fashion - all that "death of the author" and il n'y a pas de hors-texte crap.

It happened when critics decided they should be ashamed of peering at the personalities and personal habits of authors. They wanted to become more objective by dealing only with the texts. But these critics were now devoting the same over-expectant attention to words as they previously had to ambience, substituting one fetish for another. They were still interpreting, associating, reading things in, and wondering "why this, why that ?".

Suddenly I got a good look at the fingernails, and dropped the program notes. It was now clear that no matter what engages your attention as a writer or speaker, it can pay off to pay attention to your performance as well. An amusing or disgusting detail, although initially distracting, may ultimately help the audience to remember what you said, or reconstruct it. I had figured out what Deleuze meant by Dès qu'on fait une chose, il s'agit d'en sortir. Il se faut aussi d'y rester dans le sortir.. Back in the sixties, we called it "keep on truckin'".

* When you're attending a concert, there are occasionally boring stretches. That's when you turn your attention to the program notes, in search of something more interesting.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Wanderer between worlds ?

Recently I ran across the familiar German expression Wanderer zwischen den Welten in several different contexts. I would go so far as to say that it's a rather hackneyed expression, used to attribute cross-cultural moxie to anybody and everybody who has owned a passport.

Be that as it may, where does it come from ? Is there a "wanderer between worlds" original ? The expression is now so trite that any internet sites that might identify its origin are swamped by the ones where it is merely used.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Babies sign up

On the German sternTV program just now I saw a remarkable documentary about children communicating with their hands, as in sign language for the deaf. But these children were not deaf.

Already at the age of 10 months, children are able to use simple structured gestures in interacting with their parents - for instance to "signal" recognition of situations in which the gestures were learned, as when they hear background music again in a store when they revisit it. It was said that an American working with deaf children had noticed that they learned to deploy signs at a much earlier age than hearing children usually learn to speak.

Mothers who had been trying this out with their children were in the studio with their kids, talking about it with the moderator Günther Jauch. One woman said that in the course of six weeks there had been so many opportunities to learn signs that her child had learned 60 of them. The film had shown a small girl with her parents in a zoo. The child was about 1.5 years old. She had learned simple signs for different animals on previous visits. On this visit, every time she came to an animal she knew she would make the special sign for it. I remember that she made the ones for bear, rabbit, and giraffe.

One explanation for the phenomenon was that gross motor skills are acquired in the hands much earlier than are the fine motor skills needed for speech. The film explicitly warned against imagining that this signing is a prefiguration of unusual intelligence, or that it might accelerate or hinder speech learning at a later age. I took this as intended to put a damper on the kind of parents who want to discover black gold in their kids, and are prepared to drill for it if necessary. The commentator also warned against trying to force this signing on children. Here is an American website I found about the subject.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Lord of the flies

The estival of flies is upon us again, and the number of the beasts is legion. Since occasions for effective swatting are intermittent, I have decided to observe their behavior more closely than usual. Leaving out of account the torpor caused by occasional cold weather, I have come to the preliminary conclusion that the survival of house flies in the presence of predators and temperate conditions is primarily a function of their unpredictable behavior. Their strategy is to have no strategy as to where they will land, how long they will rest, whither they go and when they come.

This is an interesting idea, whether or not it could be demonstrated by mathematical means that flies exhibit random behavior. It suggests that 1] what may seem to be an absence of goal-directed action can, by changing the frame of reference, be interpreted as serving a purpose, even without anything resembling a circumscribed goal or deliberation. Changing the frame again, we hit on the idea that 2] motives can be effectively concealed by erratic behavior.

I suppose that 1] is more or less the idea of biological evolution. But there is a supernatural fly in the ointment. Its buzz is audible in 2] and the words of P.T. Barnum. who supposedly described the secret of his success thus: "Keep'em guessing".

Conclusio: even though we free our minds from the notions of up-front determinism and progress, we are still at the mercy of crafty ephemera. Walk softly, and hedge your bets. The meek will inherit the earth because they play their cards close to their chests.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The birth of bossiness

Experts, experts everywhere, and not a moment's rest. They tell us to speak one language instead of another, eat these substances instead of those, act this way instead of that ... A disposition to urge other people to change their behavior could be an Anthropological Constant. If this turns out to be a momentous discovery, remember to mention my name when you pass it along.

What can we imagine to be the evolutionary advantages of this imperious meliorism ? Perhaps there aren't any. The only offhand explanation I can think of for the phenomenon itself is longevity overhang. By that I mean this. We may assume that fathers and mothers have always told their kids how to behave. Over many millenia, the average lifespan was only 35 or so. By the time parents were no longer able to tell their kids what do to - when the kids became adolescent and would no longer listen - the parents just died. But as life expectancy increased, there were more and more parents left with time and wisdom on their hands, since the captive audience had flown the coop. This was the birth of bossiness.

Of course this tendency expresses itself in different ways. Some old people get a pet, others get a license to practice psychological counselling, still others learn Esperanto.