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Posts Tagged ‘philosophy

“Study the past if you would define the future”*…

 

plague-6-kings-and-queens-vs-the-plague-in-medieval-europe-2_orig-1024x545

A segment of Danse Macabre, Bernt Notke, late 15th century

 

“If the Black Death caused the Renaissance, will COVID also create a golden age?”

Versions of this question have been going around as people, trying to understand the present crisis, reach for history’s most famous pandemic.  Using history to understand our present is a great impulse, but it means some of the false myths we tell about the Black Death and Renaissance are doing new damage, one of the most problematic in my view being the idea that sitting back and letting COVID kill will somehow by itself naturally make the economy turn around and enter a period of growth and rising wages.

Brilliant Medievalists have been posting Black Death pieces correcting misconceptions and flailing as one does when an error refuted 50 times returns the 51st (The Middle Ages weren’t dark and bad compared to the Renaissance!!!).  As a Renaissance historian, I feel it’s my job to shoulder the other half of the load by talking about what the Renaissance was like, confirming that our Medievalists are right, it wasn’t a better time to live than the Middle Ages, and to talk about where the error comes from, why we think of the Renaissance as a golden age, and where we got the myth of the bad Middle Ages.

Only half of this is a story about the Renaissance.  The other half is later: Victorian Britain, Italy’s unification, World Wars I and II, the Cold War, ages in which the myth of the golden Renaissance was appropriated and retold.  And yes, looking at the Black Death and Renaissance is helpful for understanding COVID-19’s likely impact, but in addition to looking at 1348 we need to look at its long aftermath, at the impact Yersinia Pestis had on 1400, and 1500, and 1600, and 1700.  So:

• This post is for you if you’ve been wondering whether Black Death => Renaissance means COVID => Golden Age, and  you want a more robust answer than, “No no no no no!”

• This post is for you if you’re tired of screaming The Middle Ages weren’t dark and bad! and want somewhere to link people to, to show them how the myth began.

• This post is for you if you want to understand how an age whose relics make it look golden in retrospect can also be a terrible age to live in.

• And this post is for you if want to ask what history can tell us about 2020 and come away with hope. Because comparing 2020 to the Renaissance does give me hope, but it’s not the hope of sitting back expecting the gears of history to grind on toward prosperity, and it’s not the hope for something like the Renaissance—it’s hope for something much, much better, but a thing we have to work for, all of us, and hard…

University of Chicago historian, novelist, and composer Ada Palmer (@Ada_Palmer): “Black Death, COVID, and Why We Keep Telling the Myth of a Renaissance Golden Age and Bad Middle Ages.”

* Conficius

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As we look back, we might send thoughtful birthday greetings to al-Ghazali; (he was born (as nearly a scholars can figure) on this date in 1057.  One of the most prominent and influential philosophers, theologians, jurists, and mystics of Sunni Islam, he published prolifically– perhaps most notably here, the Tahāfut al-Falāsifa (“Incoherence of the Philosophers”), a significant landmark in the history of philosophy, as it advanced the critique of Aristotelian science developed later in 14th-century Europe.  Indeed, al-Ghazali has been credited with kicking off what has been called “the Golden Age of Arabic philosophy.”

Al+Ghazali+2 source

 

Written by LW

July 5, 2020 at 1:01 am

“The things you used to own, now they own you”*…

 

things

 

Photographic artist Barbara Iweins practice has always dealt with the boundaries of intimacy and vulnerability, and how these can be pushed to their very limits. Her relationship with the medium began 11 years ago, when she was suddenly compelled to buy a camera and photograph strangers she met in the street.

“Ever since I was young, whenever I was in a public space, my eyes would be drawn to certain people and I wondered what they were thinking or doing at that exact moment, or even what their fears were, or their joys,” she explains. So, one day, she decided to act on that impulse, asking strangers if she could enter their personal lives. “Like a voyeur, I revisited them year after year with a new project. By the end of those five years, we were so close, that I could even make a picture of them at one of their most vulnerable moments: when they just opened their eyes in the morning. This project was called 7AM/7PM.”

Having spent so long focusing on the vulnerability of others, recently, Barbara decided to turn inwards, using her own private life as a case study for the first time. “It was time for me to lay myself bare a little as well,” she adds. The result is Katalog, a project she began in 2018 which she describes as “a radical confrontation with my possessions through my photographic lens. The exposure of oneself, pushed to its paroxysm.” In a mammoth project, for two years and 15 hours a week, Barbara isolated herself and photographed all 10,532 objects in her house. “In order to rigorously confront myself with everything I own, I then classified everything by material, colour, their frequency of use and their emotional value.”

You’d assume that this would be a somewhat performative gesture, that the majority but perhaps not all of Barbara’s possessions would make it into the series but, she tells us, “to be totally honest with myself, I needed to capture them all. No book, no piece of clothing, no kitchen utensil, no Lego was going to escape my lens.”…

The photographer undertook this mammoth task in an attempt assess the value she places on objects: “Artist Barbara Iweins on spending two years photographing all 10,532 objects in her house.”

* Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

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As we take on taxonomy, we might spare a thought for Jean-Jacques Rousseau; he died on this date in 1778.  A central figure in the European Enlightenment, he was a novelist (Emile, or On Education illustrated the importance of the education of the whole person for citizenship; Julie, or the New Heloise was seminal in the development of romanticism in fiction), a composer (perhaps most notably of several operas), and an autobiographer (his Confessions initiated the modern autobiography; his Reveries of a Solitary Walker exemplified the late 18th-century movement known as the Age of Sensibility, and featured an heightened subjectivity and introspection that later characterized modern writing).

But it is as a philosopher that Rousseau was best known in his time and is best remembered.  His Discourse on Inequality and The Social Contract are cornerstones of modern political and social thought.  He was deeply controversial in his time: he was condemned from the pulpit by the Archbishop of Paris, his books were burned and warrants were issued for his arrest.  But during the period of the French Revolution, Rousseau was the most popular of the philosophes among members of the Jacobin Club. He was interred as a national hero in the Panthéon in Paris, in 1794, 16 years after his death.

42307923884_4bc291b918_o source

 

 

“The door handle is the handshake of the building”*…

 

door handle

Door handle and rose (1833–47), manufactured by Copeland & Garrett, Stoke-on-Trent. Victoria and Albert Museum, London

 

We have all become suddenly more aware of the moments when we cannot avoid touching elements of public buildings. Architecture is the most physical, most imposing and most present of the arts – you cannot avoid it yet, strangely, we touch buildings at only a very few points – the handrail, perhaps a light switch and, almost unavoidably, the door handle. This modest piece of handheld architecture is our critical interface with the structure and the material of the building. Yet it is often reduced to the most generic, cheaply made piece of bent metal which is, in its way, a potent critique of the value we place on architecture and our acceptance of its reduction to a commodified envelope rather than an expression of culture and craft.

Despite their ubiquity and pivotal role in the haptic experience of architecture, door handles remain oddly under-documented. There are no serious histories and only patchy surveys of design, mostly sponsored by manufacturers. Yet in the development of the design of the door handle we have, in microcosm, the history of architecture, a survey of making and a measure of the development of design and how it relates to manufacture, technology and the body.

For as long as there have been doors there have been door handles…

An appreciation of the apparati of accessibility: “Points of contact – a short history of door handles.”

* Juhani Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses

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As we get a grip, we might send thoughtfully-wagered birthday greetings to a man whose thought open a great many (metaphorical) doors, Blaise Pascal; he was born on this date in 1623.  A French mathematician, physicist, theologian, and inventor (e.g.,the first digital calculator, the barometer, the hydraulic press, and the syringe), his commitment to empiricism (“experiments are the true teachers which one must follow in physics”) pitted him against his contemporary René “cogito, ergo sum” Descartes…

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Happy Juneteenth!

 

Written by LW

June 19, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Deep in the fundamental heart of mind and Universe there is a reason”*…

 

darkenergy

 

Why does the Universe exist? There are two questions here. First, why is there a Universe at all? It might have been true that nothing ever existed: no living beings, no stars, no atoms, not even space or time. When we think about this possibility, it can seem astonishing that anything exists. Second, why does this Universe exist? Things might have been, in countless ways, different. So why is the Universe as it is?…

Derek Parfit explores the most fundamental questions of all: “Why anything? Why this?”  Part 2 here.

For a 3-D tour of the subject in question– the universe– see here (the source of the image above).

* Douglas Adams, Life, the Universe and Everything

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As we explore existence, we might recall that today– and every June 16– is Bloomsday, a commemoration and celebration of the life of Irish writer James Joyce, during which the events of his novel Ulysses (which is set on 16 June 1904) are relived: Leopold Bloom goes about Dublin, James Joyce’s immortalization of his first outing with Nora Barnacle, the woman who would eventually become his wife.

The first Bloomsday was observed on the 50th anniversary of the events in the novel, in 1954, when John Ryan (artist, critic, publican and founder of Envoy magazine) and the novelist Brian O’Nolan organized what was to be a daylong pilgrimage along the Ulysses route. They were joined by Patrick Kavanagh, Anthony Cronin, Tom Joyce (a dentist who, as Joyce’s cousin, represented the family interest), and AJ Leventhal (a lecturer in French at Trinity College, Dublin).

The crew for the first Bloomsday excursion

source

 

Written by LW

June 16, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Neoliberalization has meant, in short, the financialization of everything”*…

 

Succession

 

Investing and deal-making occupy an outsized role in popular depictions of “business” like HBO’s Succession and Showtime’s Billions. They also occupy an outsized share of our elite: Over the last five years, the nation’s top business schools have sent nearly thirty percent of their graduating classes into finance.

But the buying and selling of companies, the mergers and divestments, the hedging and leveraging, are not themselves valuable activity. They invent, create, build, and provide nothing. Their claim to value is purely derivative—by improving the allocation of capital and configuration of assets, they are supposed to make everyone operating in the real economy more productive. The practitioners are rewarded richly for their effort.

Does this work, or are the efforts largely wasted? One might default to the assumption that an industry attracting so much talent and generating so much profit must be creating enormous value. But the elaborate financial engineering of the 2000s, which attempted an alchemy-like conversion of high-risk loans into rock-solid assets, and then placed highly leveraged bets against their performance, led to the collapse of some established Wall Street institutions, massive bailouts for others, and a global economic meltdown. Mergers and acquisitions, meanwhile, appear largely to be exercises in wheel-spinning: “M&A is a mug’s game,” explains Roger Martin in the Harvard Business Review, “in which typically 70%–90% of acquisitions are abysmal failures.”…

Hedge funds and venture capital funds appear to badly underperform simple public market indexes, while buyout funds have performed roughly at par over the past decade. Of course, some funds deliver outsized returns in a given timeframe; even a random distribution has a right tail. And there are managers whose strong and consistent track records suggest the creation of real value.

In other words, most fund managers are generating the results that one might expect from an elaborate game of chance—placing bets in the market with odds similar to a coin flip. With enough people playing, some will always find themselves on winning streaks and claim the Midas touch, at least until the coin’s next flip. Except under these rules of “heads I win, tails you lose,” they collect their fees regardless…

In the U.S., finance, insurance and real estate (FIRE) sector now accounts for 20 percent of GDP– compared with only 10 percent in 1947.  The thorough and thoughtful analysis– and critique–  of the frothier components of that sector excerpted above is noteworthy, beyond its quality, for it’s origin; it is an early product of a new conservative think tank, American Compass.

Read it in full: “Coin-Flip Capitalism: A Primer.”

Pair with “What Kind of Country Do We Want?“, a resonant essay from the amazing Marilynne Robinson.

(image above: source)

* “Neoliberalization has meant, in short, the financialization of everything. There was unquestionably a power shift away from production to the world of finance… Neoliberalization has not been very effective in revitalizing global capital accumulation, but it has succeeded remarkably well in restoring, or in some instances (as in Russia and China) creating, the power of an economic elite. The theoretical utopianism of neoliberal argument has, I conclude, primarily worked as a system of justification and legitimation for whatever needed to be done to achieve this goal.”  — David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism

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As we look beyond price to value, we might recall that it was on this date in 1936 that Alan Turing submitted his paper, “On Computable Numbers” for publication; its full title was “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem.”  In answer to Hibert’s and Ackermann’s 1928 challenge, Turing demonstrated that some purely mathematical yes-no questions can never be answered by computation; more technically, that some decision problems are “undecidable” in the sense that there is no single algorithm that infallibly gives a correct “yes” or “no” answer to each instance of the problem.  In Turing’s own words: “…what I shall prove is quite different from the well-known results of Gödel … I shall now show that there is no general method which tells whether a given formula U is provable in K.”

Turing followed this proof with two others, both of which rely on the first. And all rely on his development of type-writer-like “computing machines” that obey a simple set of rules and his subsequent development of a “universal computing machine”– the “Turing Machine,” a key inspiration (to von Neumann and others) for the development of the digital computer.

220px-Alan_Turing_Aged_16 source

 

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