we are made for art, memory, poetry, oblivion
May 24, 2015, 7:25 pm
Filed under: departure lounge, the sweet life | Tags: ,

The gods make trouble to spur us write and sing songs (Homer); we write down everything we see in the world (Mallarme). Mallarme’s full statement was “Tout au monde existe pour aboutir a un livre,” which means everything in the world exists to end up in a book.

These ideas are the same: life is poetry, poetry life. Art, memory, poetry, death.

“The gods weave misfortunes for men, so that the generations to come will have something to sing about.” Mallarmé repeats, less beautifully, what Homer said; “tout aboutit en un livre,” everything ends up in a book. The Greeks speak of generations that will sing; Mallarmé speaks of an object, of a thing among things, a book. But the idea is the same; the idea that we are made for art, we are made for memory, we are made for poetry, or perhaps we are made for oblivion. But something remains, and that something is history or poetry, which are not essentially different.

Jorge Luis Borges, Seven Nights

prospect park
May 3, 2015, 10:26 pm
Filed under: departure lounge, the sweet life | Tags:


being indecent
May 3, 2015, 12:46 pm
Filed under: brave new world, unseen world | Tags: ,

Beyond basic survival, you’re poor if you can’t maintain the sense of being decent in the eyes of the community you live in:

People are poverty stricken whenever their income, even if adequate for survival, falls markedly behind that of the community. Then they cannot have what the larger community regards as the minimum necessary for decency; and they cannot wholly escape, therefore, the judgment of the larger community that they are indecent.

John Kenneth Galbraith

photo: Dionisio González

the vase broke itself

OctaviusDetermine who did it, or assume it was accidental. Hunt the perpetrator or restore the victim. Punishment or restitution. English speakers tend to identify events with agents; Spanish and Japanese speakers don’t remember the agent. This leads to very different kinds of justice; also to very different daily human interactions. From Lost in Translation by Lera Boroditsky:

For example, English likes to describe events in terms of agents doing things. English speakers tend to say things like “John broke the vase” even for accidents. Speakers of Spanish or Japanese would be more likely to say “the vase broke itself.” Such differences between languages have profound consequences for how their speakers understand events, construct notions of causality and agency, what they remember as eyewitnesses and how much they blame and punish others.

In studies conducted by Caitlin Fausey at Stanford, speakers of English, Spanish and Japanese watched videos of two people popping balloons, breaking eggs and spilling drinks either intentionally or accidentally. Later everyone got a surprise memory test: For each event, can you remember who did it? She discovered a striking cross-linguistic difference in eyewitness memory. Spanish and Japanese speakers did not remember the agents of accidental events as well as did English speakers. Mind you, they remembered the agents of intentional events (for which their language would mention the agent) just fine. But for accidental events, when one wouldn’t normally mention the agent in Spanish or Japanese, they didn’t encode or remember the agent as well.


Patterns in language offer a window on a culture’s dispositions and priorities. For example, English sentence structures focus on agents, and in our criminal-justice system, justice has been done when we’ve found the transgressor and punished him or her accordingly (rather than finding the victims and restituting appropriately, an alternative approach to justice). So does the language shape cultural values, or does the influence go the other way, or both?

Lera Boroditsky, Lost in Translation, Wall Street Journal

photograph: Kristan Horton

drowning heavenly ecstasies, fervour, enthusiasm, sentimentalism
April 26, 2015, 4:28 pm
Filed under: brave new world, chronotopes, the sweet life | Tags: ,

Below, how these good things – ecstasy, fervour, enthusiasm, sentimentalism – are discredited and drowned by ‘egotistical calculation.’ Can you imagine going to work and being ecstatic, fervent, enthusiastic and sentimental and lasting a day? Or a date and being ecstatic, fervent — and getting a second date? Or sitting on a board and being ecstatic — and rising to the top or lasting more than a week?

This is not our world any more. Egotistical calculation by its reductive project has drowned personal worth in all its multivalent, legion forms.

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.

Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto

how European languages evolved
April 20, 2015, 8:12 pm
Filed under: chronotopes, departure lounge | Tags: , ,

markets are a totem

Here’s a description, from Galbraith’s book A Short History of Financial Euphoria, of the aftermath of market crashes, like those of 1987 and 2008. He describes the refusal to talk about the real reason behind crashes, the substitution of other not real reasons, and the propping up of the Market as an unimpeachable institution.

Well, markets aren’t magic, but beyond that and perhaps more importantly, money people are not well equipped for civil leadership. If there is a priesthood increasing superstition and influence around our economic lives – which should be rational and held subject to more important things, like human wellbeing and flourishing – then shouldn’t we do something about it? Discredit the priesthood and maybe the orthodoxy will wither and die.

From the book:

There will be talk of regulation and reform. What will not be discussed is the speculation itself or the aberrant optimism that lay behind it. Nothing is more remarkable than this: in the aftermath of speculation, the reality will be all but ignored.

There are two reasons for this. In the first place, many people and institutions have been involved, and whereas it is acceptable to attribute error, gullibility and excess to a single individual or even to a particular corporation, it is not deemed fitting to attribute them to whole community, and certainly not to the whole financial community. Widespread naivete, even stupidity, is manifest; mention of this, however, runs drastically counter to the earlier noted presumption that intelligence is intimately associated with money. The financial community must be assumed to be intellectually above such extravagance of error.

The second reason that the speculative mood and mania are exempted from blame is theological. In accepted free-enterprise attitudes and doctrine, the market is a neutral and accurate reflection of external influences; it is not supposed to be subject to an inherent and internal dynamic of error. This is the classical faith. So there is a need to find some cause for the crash, however far fetched, that is external to the market itself. Or some abuse of the market that has inhibited its normal performance.

Again, this is no matter of idle theory; there are very practical consequences, and these, as we shall see, are especially evident an important in our own time. That the months and years before the 1987 stock market crash were characterized by intense speculation no one would seriously deny. But in the aftermath of that crash, little on no importance was attributed to this speculation. Instead, the deficit in the federal budget became the decisive factor. The escape from reality continued with studies by the New York Stock Exchange, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and a special presidential commission, all of which passed over or minimized the speculation as a conditioning cause. Markets in our culture are a totem; to them can be ascribed no inherent aberrant tendency or fault.

John Kenneth Galbraith, A Short History of Financial Euphoria, p23


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