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Imagination in Flight

November 16, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

In Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula Le Guin has her protagonist, Genly Ai, travel to the distant planet Gethen which has no birds or flying insects. As a result, the communities there never even thought to attempt flight and their language has no word for flying. It is no wonder, then, that the people mistrust Genly who arrives by airship. It is also easy to see why Le Guin chose this scenario. She masterfully removes something which we often take for granted (that there are flying animals and insects) and then demonstrates how it impacts imagination. (For the record, there are many other major differences between our earthly world and Gethen, but I’m only talking flight today. I definitely recommend the book for all of those who are curious about science fiction experiments.) In chapter thirteen, Genly Ai and another man are sharing folktales about the places where they are from. Genly shares the story of flight. He remarks that he is not talking about a spirit world, but the real world. He says, “’Not by flapping their arms, you know. They flew in machines like cars.’ But it was hard to say in Orgota, which lacks a word meaning precisely ‘to fly’; the closest one can come has more the meaning of ‘glide.’ ‘Well, they learned how to make machines that went right over the air as a sledge goes over the snow.’” Of course, in order to communicate, language restricts Genly Ai to analogies of the place where he is, so he focuses on a common machine from this icy climate, the sled.

 Albuquerque International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Albuquerque International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

The history of flight is extremely curious and inspiring. The history of aviation includes such fascinating, bold, strong personalities as Emilia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh, the Wright brothers and many, many others. However, I was caught by surprise recently when I discovered how little I know about lighter-than-air ships. In reading Ships of the Air by Lyn Curlee, I saw again that same spark of curiosity that often drives human invention. Curlee writes, “One day, after watching ashes from a fire float upward, Joseph Montgolfier folded a piece of paper, held it above a fire, then watched it fly up the chimney. Joseph believed that the smoky fire created some kind of gas that was lighter than air. Only later did he and Étienne understand that hot air rises. But Joseph did understand that if a big enough bag could be filled with hot ‘gas,’ the bag would rise off the ground – and could carry a person with it.” From there begins a wonderful, rich, global history layered with politics and science. After Montgolfier demonstrated a hot air balloon flight to Marie Antoinette, the world took note. Furthermore, his balloon contained a flight crew of a sheep, rooster, and duck, whose survival proved that the atmosphere was higher than previously imagined. Many people became interested in designing and flying airships. In the late 1800s, they became popular sights in France, London and Germany. And as war broke out, the zeppelin famously became a machine of war, rather than leisure.

Back when the Montgolfier brothers were experimenting with cloth and paper balloons, however, there were many misconceptions regarding flight. Curlee writes that in 1766, “Professor Charles’s balloon floated 15 miles into the countryside, landing near a small village. The villagers, who thought the balloon was a monster, destroyed it with pitchforks.” This mentality echoes what Le Guin describes on her science fiction world, Gethen. It took an incredible amount of imagination to believe in flight. Furthermore, imagination is, in part, problem-solving. For the story of airships to become any kind of success indicates that man must often think outside the box. I return to Joseph Montgolfier watching ashes rise. With possibility comes the calculated risk of burning the paper. Understandably, then, the airship has faced many problems, such as weather, flammability, size versus weight ratios, etc. Curlee continues, “The story of lighter-than-air travel is mainly the story of failures. People who designed airships made many mistakes – often because they were experimenting with new technology, sometimes because they were careless.” Even so, hot-air balloons still inspire our imaginations. They predate airplanes, have been created by humans all over the globe, and have been put to many uses (including a German mail service). One thing is clear, flight of any kind captivates humans. The ability to defy gravity, even for an instant, sparks the imagination.

 Darth Vader at the Albuquerque International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Darth Vader at the Albuquerque International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

These photographs were taken at the Albuquerque International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta. Every October, over five hundred balloonists visit Albuquerque for its unique landscape and wind patterns. Balloons feature colorful designs, brand names, and cultural icons (Darth Vader is often a big hit). To see five hundred balloons floating up in the sunrise certainly inspires the imagination!

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Discussing de Tocqueville

November 2, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

For the October Quarterly Discussion, we read four chapters from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. As usual, I distributed some questions beforehand intended to help start the conversation. Each discussion lasts 1.5 hours in which I (mostly) lead. I enjoy the responsibility of organizing these discussions because I get to begin with the questions that I have about a specific text. Due to the fact that so much of de Tocqueville’s writings resonate with me, I really struggled to refrain from participating too. His writings also speak to current politics, and therefore, it was doubly hard to avoid participation. I have to thank the participants in Harrison Middleton University’s October Quarterly Discussion who did an admirable job of sticking to the subject.

We began with the formation of political parties in general. He writes, “But when the citizens entertain different opinions upon subjects which affect the whole country alike, such, for instance, as the principles upon which the government is to be conducted, then distinctions arise that may correctly be styled parties. Parties are a necessary evil in free governments; but they have not at all times the same character and the same propensities” (88-9). So, while he finds parties to be a necessary evil, he also does not find them equal in character. From there, we tried to understand de Tocqueville’s delineation between “great” and “small” parties. Despite the way that it sounds, these two types of parties have nothing to do with size. Rather, in de Tocqueville’s mind, the great parties are those that discuss issues and have, what he calls, a “more noble” pursuit. On the other hand, small parties form around an issue or two. The small parties, according to de Tocqueville, care more about a single issue or a private interest than about ideas or the good of society, whereas great parties are concerned with principles and their general application. In 1830, he writes, “America has had great parties, but has them no longer; and if her happiness is thereby considerably increased, her morality has suffered” (89B). According to de Tocqueville, the great parties arose out of necessity and strife, a time when America was suffering. These parties looked at broad issues that would impact all of America. The focus, therefore, was more holistic. However, once these changes were implemented and the need for social cohesion lessoned, special interests overtook the general cohesion of the great parties and replaced them. De Tocqueville describes the effects of the small parties as those which “agitate” society rather than revolutionize it.

Furthermore, de Tocqueville’s use of happiness and morality is of great interest. In this section, he seems to define happiness as a level of individual comfort and perhaps peace. It appears that his version of happiness in America is one which leads to a sort of immorality. He suggests that the more comfortable we are, the more self-involved we are and therefore, less moral. In other words, morality may demand an ethic that lessens our ease of living. In the future, I would like to further investigate de Tocqueville’s idea of happiness by moving outside of this single chapter. I am curious how happiness (in his terms) aligns with morality throughout the text. Furthermore, I wonder how different translators have dealt with this idea. Is happiness the most appropriate word choice for the original French? How have others translated this section? (The Great Books version was translated by George Lawrence.)

From there, we moved into the chapter on Freedom of the Press. De Tocqueville begins this chapter by stating that he has reservations about a free press. He writes, “I confess that I do not entertain that firm and complete attachment to the liberty of the press which is wont to be excited by things that are supremely good in their very nature. I approve of it from a consideration more of the evils it prevents than of the advantages it ensures” (92A). First, he finds that a free press is invaluable to a democracy because information distribution would be limited by a single entity. On the other hand, freedom implies that nearly anyone can create news if they choose to do so. In the first case, news is singular and perhaps biased or incomplete. In the latter, news may lack data, information, facts and anything pertaining to reality. Furthermore, he writes, “[T]he hallmark of the American journalist is a direct and coarse attack, without any subtleties, on the passions of his readers; he disregards principles to seize on people, following them into their private lives and laying bare their weaknesses and their vices. That is a deplorable abuse of the powers of thought” (95A). He continues that, despite the abuse of thought, each individual newspaper carries little weight, which makes many small voices. This cacophony creates the “spirit” of the press. The multitude of voices also ironically removes the danger of a single voice reaching the level of despotism.

These chapters address very complex issues inherent in America’s being. They are worth more than 1.5 hours of discussion. Rather, de Tocqueville addresses so many contemporary issues that the entire volume is worth (re)reading. Additionally, discussing a work like this one is vital to understanding the depth of democracy’s issues. Democracy in America explains some of the foundations of our country in a way that is both poetic and holistic. My gratitude goes to those who spent time in discussion with me. I look forward to our next conversation!

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Language Games

October 12, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Communication is awfully complicated. How does anyone know, for certain, when they are communicating? For meaning to occur, two parties must have some knowledge in common. Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote many pages about the way that language is structured. Today, I want to investigate his idea of the language game and then apply it to Heidegger’s idea of Being.

According to Wittgenstein, the language game begins with, but does not include, names. He refers to the action of naming as “preparation for description” (329B). That a name for something exists only means that we have a shell of reference. So, I can mention a cat, which will give you a categorical reference devoid of specifics. Once we have assembled some names, we begin a discussion by adding descriptors. Wittgenstein likens this to a chess board. Names are the pieces that we can move around the board, but they are not the game itself. Now that we have these categories, we can begin to communicate about them, describe them, fill them in, move them. Wittgenstein writes, “[A] great deal of stage-setting in the language is presupposed if the mere act of naming is to make sense. And when we speak of someone’s having given a name to pain, what is presupposed is the existence of the grammar of the word ‘pain’’ it shews the post where the new word is stationed” (Philosophical Investigation #257). So, the language game takes concepts and places them within a structure.

The knowledge of concepts, however, is of crucial importance. Wittgenstein continually warns the reader that meaning is not a given. In example after example, Wittgenstein describes how difficult it actually is to make meaning. He writes, “[I]t is difficult to see that what is at issue is the fixing of concepts…. A concept forces itself onto one” (425B). What he intends here, I believe, is that the concept itself has been defined by culture, society, norms, etc. In the chess analogy, the knight’s movement has been defined for you. You can only move it in an ‘L’ shape according to the rules of the game. Say, for example, that your language game intends to discuss the idea of a cat, “cat” will already have an agreed-upon definition. This concept, however, is fixed only in terms of this specific game. Once you exit the game, cat may contain more or less meanings, more or less descriptions. Meaning, then, depends upon the group involved in a single discussion as well as the terminology that the discussion utilizes.

Furthermore, Wittgenstein discusses anomalies, such as mistakes, calculations, guesses, hypotheses, etc. Upon what foundation do we make a mistake? Is it fair to call a lion a cat? Though it fits the category, it may not actually represent the idea or concept driving the speech-act. For instance, if I make the statement: “The cat is cute,” in what sense would lion make sense and in what sense would it not?

Now that we have a basic idea of the language game, we can move from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations into Heidegger’s “What is Metaphysics?” Near the end of this piece, Heidegger claims:

“Obedient to the voice of Being, thought seeks the Word through which the truth of Being may be expressed. Only when the language of historical man is born of the Word does it ring true. But if it does ring true, then the testimony of the soundless voice of hidden springs lures it ever on. The thought of Being guards the Word and fulfils its function in such guardianship, namely care for the use of language. Out of long-guarded speechlessness and the careful clarification of the field thus cleared, comes the utterance of the thinker. Of like origin is the naming of the poet. But since like is only like insofar as difference allows, and since poetry and thinking are most purely alike in their care of the word, the two things are at the same time at opposite poles in their essence. The thinker utters Being. The poet names what is holy.” (310B)

This passage strikes me as thought-provoking (and complicated) for many reasons. Heidegger mentions a cleared field, which is an important aspect behind his idea of essential Being and Word. This field is, in fact, a Nothing through which we come to understand Being itself. If we think of the cleared field as a field of possibility, we are able to project our Being into it. And then, Being(s) exist because we do. According to Heidegger, this constant process of understanding the world through a removal of everything is the first step in thinking. Heidegger writes, “Being is not a product of thinking. It is more likely that essential thinking is an occurrence of Being” (309A). In other words, once the field is cleared, a Being can focus on a field which allows for contemplation of a thing or things, but not everything simultaneously. He asks that we focus on the Word, meaning a specific idea devoid of self and other baggage. From there, we will find thought.

The final line of his long quote above mentions the difference between a poet and a philosopher. Basically, according to Heidegger, they both work toward the same goal. However, the poet stands at one end of this spectrum while the philosopher at the other. The difference arises in the mode of expression. So, the philosopher seeks a discursive, direct expression of thought, whereas the poet seeks truth through metaphor. In other words, the poet attempts to fully remove Being itself, and focus on the thought, focus on embodiment of the other. In this way, the poet arrives at a similar, but different, idea of the moon (for example), or whatever body you would like. For this reason, Heidegger claims that the philosopher arrives at an understanding of Being, whereas the poet finds what is holy.

Much remains unpacked in this short commentary on Wittgenstein and Heidegger. However, we have arrived at an idea of Being as represented by Heidegger’s very specific terminology. Heidegger is known for co-opting or creating words and phrases for his own purpose, devoid of their everyday meaning. In some cases, these phrases are untranslatable (as we find in the passages regarding Da Sien). That does not mean, however, that nothing can be gained. In fact, I hope this short experiment has granted some window of insight into a discussion of language itself.

*All citations are from the Great Books Anthology number 55, 20th Century Philosophy and Religion, 1990.


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Mrs. Maisel's Emotions

October 5, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Spoiler alert: if you are midway through The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, maybe you should bookmark this post because I am going to talk about her character development throughout the first season. If you are not yet familiar with this show, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is about a young Jewish woman whose husband leaves her for his secretary. From a wealthy family, she is well-educated, witty, beautiful and well-dressed. After separating from her husband, she moves back in with her parents. Due to the unexpected shame and frustration of her situation, Miriam Maisel (“Midge,” played by Rachel Brosnahan) stumbles into performing an improv act in which she questions who she is and what to do with her new situation. Standing in the front of a room of strangers and disparaging yourself seems like an odd way to deal with her emotions, and yet it is what she does. Why does Midge resort to comedy? Was it a rational decision, or an emotional one? Must it be one or the other? Is a comedic representation of painful events some sort of emotional release?

In the Syntopicon, Emotion is listed as one of the great ideas of Western Civilization. The discussion of it is always extremely rational. Looking at emotion through the lens of reason may be the best way to understand it. However, to me, it seems like this idea would really benefit from a more broadened world view. After reading the discussion of Emotion, I have many lingering questions. Is it an activity that requires thought, or is devoid of thought? Also, why did Kant introduce the idea of emotion in the beginning of The Critique of Pure Reason, but wait another hundred pages to actually discuss it? As another example, Spinoza generated a long list of emotions (all of which stem from either desire, joy or sorrow). His list includes things like over-estimation, audacity and drunkenness. (Maybe Midge’s drunken state is to blame for her first stand-up routine?) While I don’t believe that Spinoza defined drunkenness as inebriation, there is a real lack of understanding about what emotion encompasses. Being emotional is often portrayed as messy, loud, aggressive, or overwrought, but it can also be none of those things. To that point, Spinoza’s list also includes benevolence, despondency and confidence. I am struggling to understand emotion as a state of being, versus emotion as an action, versus emotion as reaction, versus emotion as a form of knowledge.

In the show, Midge is not really messy or overwrought. Instead, she’s funny. Therefore, I wonder if comedy might complement the path of reason as a means towards understanding emotion. Midge’s first two on-stage experiences were successful. (Do note that she was tipsy for both, however.) When she realized that people reacted favorably to her rambles, she decided to go on stage in earnest. Midge prepared for this experience with notes and contemplation of things she found humorous. Only, this time, she was not funny. This third performance was a rational choice, whereas the previous two seemed to be accidental. Did reason interfere with comedy? Does comedy require a level of emotional ownership, a personal connection to the humor? Why are Midge’s self-deprecating stand-up routines funny, but not the bits of human inanity? After bombing on-stage, Midge’s manager Susie (played by Alex Borstein), explained that improv works until it doesn’t work, and then you have to work at understanding what makes a thing funny. So, Midge began to prepare her shows until she worked up to a successful 10 minute stand-up routine. Sometimes, comedy seems to be an instinctual art. The ability to gauge when something is funny or not seems instinctual, but really, it requires a great deal of emotional education. Many of the jokes throughout this series stem from painful events. She mines these experiences to find humorous nuggets in them, but she is also painfully aware of the double meaning hidden under each joke. A comedian must find this very specific balance between boring or tired details and overly abstract narration.

In the Syntopicon, Adler states, “Like desire, emotion is neither knowledge nor action, but something intermediate between the one and the other” (328B). I wonder, however, can we definitively state that emotion is not knowledge? In seeking out comedy, Midge is not choosing bad behavior, but rather solving an emotional dilemma. Perhaps these comedy acts demonstrate a level of irrationality. Is this a demonstration of the Aristotelean idea that when emotions rule, we lack reason? Adler summarizes this point: “That a man may act either emotionally or rationally, Aristotle thinks, explains how, under strong emotional influences, a man can do the very opposite of what his reason would tell him is right or good. The point is that, while the emotions dominate his mind and action, he does not listen to reason” (331B). In the case of Midge, I argue against that notion, however, because while her improv does carry emotional content, they are not unstructured. Construction requires logic.

Maybe Midge has encountered a version of Heidegger’s idea of Dread, and it is this powerful fear which actually draws her on stage. Or is comedy a path that analyzes the gap between something like Freud’s id and ego? Adler summarizes Freud’s belief in saying that he “sometimes goes to the extreme of insisting that all apparently rational processes – both of thought and decision – are themselves emotionally determined; and that most, or all, reasoning is nothing but the rationalization of emotionally fixed prejudices and beliefs” (332B). This idea might help explain Midge’s attraction to improv. She explicates the obvious in a funny and universal way that connects to a broader audience. Near the end of the first season, Susie invites some bigwigs and reporters to see Midge’s solid routine. Only, when Midge arrives on stage, she impulsively decides not to make fun of her family for once. Instead, she pokes fun at a local icon whose hypocrisy bothers Midge. Though the routine was funny, innovative and personal, Midge is ostracized. What behavior explains this irrationality? Is it emotional response? Or is Midge asking questions through humor that would sound absurd through reason?

In the final episode of Season One, Midge discovers her true self on stage. Throughout this series, she has struggled to create a name or find an identity. But at the end of her final set (which the audience assumes was largely improv built upon the past 24 hours of her life), she defines herself as Mrs. Maisel. She charts her own path through personal experience which she then turns into universal experience. Her confidence stems from her comedic abilities.

As a final thought, it is important to mention that only three female voices find their way into Adler’s history of Emotion: George Eliot, Jane Austen and Willa Cather. I feel very strongly that we could broaden this category by looking into other resources. The Syntopicon includes Freud, but what about the poet H.D. who was Freud’s longtime patient? Or why not include Arjuna’s struggles on the battlefield of the Bhagavad-Gita? Translation studies may also assist by helping us to understand how different languages categorize emotions. To me, it seems clear that more work must be done on the category of Emotion.

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