Sunday, January 23, 2005

If you're thinking of an elephant ...

This is a great book!

Lakoff explains frames of reference and how language conveys ideas within those frames. As a cognitive scientist and linguist, he addresses how political discourse is shaped by frames. It's a quick and easy read, and thankfully doesn't outline one specific platform for political reform.

In the first few chapters, Lakoff attempts to explain complex ideas in noncomplex sentences (apparently he believes staunchly in bringing academia to the masses by de-constructing the hierarchy of language.) At first it's a little condescending, even Seuss-esque: "Do not think conservatives are stupid. They are not. They are smart. They are very intelligent." But eventually, as the compilation of essays progresses, this talking-down ceases.

He addresses how the right wing has brilliantly compiled a united media front and think tank empire, and effectively uses language to gather (not manipulate) support for its worldview and public policies. Sadly, even liberals use the rhetoric of the right ("partial-birth abortion", "gay marriage", etc.) , and in doing so undermine the validity of their own frames of reference. Lakoff also emphasizes how conservatives can agree to disagree on many issues in order to further a larger common cause, something liberals can't seem to do.

Lakoff offers no sound bytes or PR slogans for liberals to use for defensive purposes. Which is exactly the point, of course. The idea is to start dialogues and generate concrete solutions. There is no one genius or guru who can spout the answers, the rebuttals, the successful campaigns.

Now, if only Seattle's famous washed-out hippies (who love complaining but never actually do anything) would read this and actually compile an action plan!

Oh, wait. That might be my generation's job. (See first post).

Friday, January 21, 2005

Ah, Prufrock

Whenever I feel like pondering time and mortality (as on this, the first day of the next four years), and need a reminder to stop and smell the roses, T.S. Eliot always does the job. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" manages to evoke empathy for an unfulfilled life, and to inspire a drive for truth, authenticity, and passion.

There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea. . . .

Everyone dons a different mask for a different social occasion. "Prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet" -- such a facade that we all endorse and perpetuate by default! Eliot obviously didn't mean it this way (writing in the early decades of the last century), but it also echoes the facade of depression: present a happy face in public, to mask the private despair. And Prufrock is depressed, representing as he does the post-Great War era engulfed in gloom and misery.

In a way, the poem also speaks to the postmodern (also clearly not Eliot!) If everyone wears a mask, what's "real"? At what point does the mask itself become an identity?

. . . And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair— . . .

. . . Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse. . . .

Complacency wastes time and life, in the end.

My favorite verse:
For I have known them all already, known them all:—
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume? . . .
And the most haunting verse:

I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

If that's not a call to make a difference in some way, what is? It practically screams "Carpe Diem" or "Go for broke!". Does it matter if it's God, arbitrary and selective history, or someone else's fleeting happiness that determines a "successful" life? Well yes, IMO, but that's another discussion...

Saturday, January 15, 2005

A Confederacy of Dunces

Again, why did I try to read a work of fiction? I plodded through this book for five chapters before realizing --yet again-- that a made-up world just isn't worth my time, even if it puts forth a valid commentary on social relations.

The main character is an arrogant fat farter who mistreats his mother and doesn't utilize his education for his own good or anyone else's.

This book was first recommended to me at a Worms Society meeting. (Ah, yes, the Worms Society ... meeting weekly in a dingy room in a dorm basement of Scotland's oldest university, to discuss books and music and philosophy and life. Named for a line in Dead Poets Society. I miss nerdy shit like that.) Then I recently came across it on some post-election discussion board, which I now can't find. At any rate, I though it might deserve a chance. Wrong! I don't care if the intricately-crafted characters and scenarios illustrate the irrationality of a pluralistic society. In the back of my mind the whole time, I'm thinking of everything worthwhile I could be doing, of the other magazines and books I could be reading, of the movies I could be seeing this three-day weekend.

That's it. No more forays into fiction for me, unless it's to re-read a classic I already know is well-written.

Friday, January 14, 2005

About Being Bored

I TRIED TO READ FICTION. I tried, but couldn't do it! A fan of the movie and after so many rave reviews of the book from people I hold in high regard, I tried to read it. Got halfway through it before I couldn't pretend to be interested anymore. Having seen the movie, I know the selfish, sexist prick of a main character eventually comes to have warm fuzzy feelings for humanity, befriends a lonely outcast weird child and his hippie, neurotic mother, and learns that love and friendship and community are all about being yourself.

So why waste my time reading about it? Yeah, Hornby is a good writer. In the half of the book that I read, he manages to capture the unifying isolation of both bachelor life in London and the awkwardness of adolescence. I get it. I get the symbolism of the title as it relates to the positions of the characters of different ages. I understand how the individual and individual relationships are often lost in the anonymity and conformity of postmodern urban life.

But fiction is still an underappreciated realm for me. I understand the beauty of language, and how an author can create characters and scenarios that make larger statements about life and society and people, or just create pure escapist worlds simply because they don't make larger statements about life and society and people.

Hell, I used to want to write fiction, with my wacked-out, angst-ridden teenage worldview. I also used to read a hell of a lot of it, when there was really nothing else to do in middle and high school. (When you're not allowed to watch TV, everyone from Carolyn Keene to Jane Austen provides appropriate mental escape routes).

Again, though, why read it? Why not just deal with (and fix!) life, society, and people? Why create alternate worlds that can only serve as commentaries, but never offer concrete solutions?

Oddly enough, my two favorite books (In Our Time and The Great Gatsby) are works of fiction! I suspect I like fiction from earlier times because I see them more as historical texts. I can analyze and study them as cultural artifacts.

The historian in me knows that today's fiction will be the artifacts of tomorrow. The sociologist in me can analyze the impact of the commodity and the socioeconomic structures of today's literature. But I can't read it myself. Not now. Not anymore.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Lifting the lamp beside the golden door

Amid all the tsunami aid coverage, I went to see a local documentary about the "Lost Boys" of Sudan. Very well done film, and the panel afterwards was fairly decent.

One of the people profiled in the movie mentioned that Americans love to hear their story (NBC did some huge special on the "Lost Boys"), but that nobody cares about stopping the civil war in Sudan. Unfortunately, it's true. Because the Lost Boys' stories fit so perfectly into the American myth of rags-to-riches. Audiences soak up the scenes of the third world kids staring in wonder at a telephone, a milk carton, a shopping mall. These images reinforce notions of national superiority by underscoring the terrible conditions of an underdeveloped country, conditions that drove them from the longest-running civil war in modern history. The Lost Boys' mass exodus evokes overtly biblical imagery: wandering the wilderness from Ethiopia to Kenya until finally coming to the promised land of tennis shoes, education, fast food.

Of course Americans don't care about the war. (How many even know that a peace deal was even reached?) The war was about, in part, access to the oil fields in southern Sudan. The Muslim/Christian and Arab/black differences that are thrown in are all too familiar, though equally as epic. Interest in the stories from Sudan are more about the American ego, of reassurance that the "wretched refuse" and "homeless, tempest-tossed" from others' teeming shores can only find peace in the U.S. The stories speak to historic feelings involving third world/first world, black/nonblack, and dominant culture/immigrant dynamics.

Americans continue to be mentally isolationist, while believing themselves to be wonderfully enlightened and international.