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Cartoon by Eric Shansby 

From the Washington Post, Sunday, March 16, 2008

This is what it is like to be at the movies with me.

Me: Is that the same guy who was in the last scene, with the girl?

Wife: Yes. Shh.

Me: But he had a beard in the last scene.

Wife: No, he didn’t. Shhh.

Me: Are you sure?

Wife: Shhhhh.

Me: (Sulk.)

Wife: Listen, you idiot. It’s Tom Cruise. The same Tom Cruise who was in the previous scene. It’s the same one who will be in the next scene. It’s the same one who had Renee Zellweger at hello in the last movie when you forgot who Tom Cruise was, and, yes, by the way, that was Renee Zellweger, not Kirsten Dunst, who looks nothing like Renee Zellweger and would not be confused for Renee Zellweger by anyone but you, okay?

Stranger in next seat: Shhh.

I have trouble recognizing and remembering faces. It is a mild form of a disorder called prosopagnosia, which in its most extreme form can cause you to look in a mirror and not recognize the person looking back at you.

My face-recognition dysfunction is pretty minor, but it is severely tested when watching a movie, a circumstance where you are suddenly presented with many unfamiliar people interacting in complicated ways, and you must learn to quickly tell them apart. I’m okay if a character has some dramatic distinguishing characteristic, or speaks in a distinctive way — I was just fine with the Wicked Witch of the West — but if the characters seem to be random assemblages of run-of-the-mill noses and eyes, lips and ears, I am in trouble.

Entire article here.


Chinese pianist Lang Lang 

From Canadian Aesthetics Journal, Volume 10, Fall 2004 

In an engaging little book on Schopenhauer Michael Tanner makes striking observations about the absence of desire for music in the history of philosophy. “In the case of music philosophers have, on the whole, shown a notable lack of interest. That is partly because most of them seem to have little appetite for music, a fact to be noted rather than pondered. Schopenhauer is one of the great exceptions, and Nietzsche and Wittgenstein are two of the others; Nietzsche’s philosophy always has music in at least the background, and Wittgenstein certainly thought of music as a deep phenomenon though he wrote little that is valuable.” 

I think these observations are on the mark as far as generalizations go. However, what Tanner’s says about one of the exceptions- namely, the case of Ludwig Wittgenstein- I find puzzling. The questions that immediately arise are: If Wittgenstein wrote much about music, which Tanner conversationally implies, where is such a body of work to be found? Why is most of it without value? What is the “little that is valuable” and why? In any case, why did Wittgenstein think of music as a deep phenomenon?  These questions cry out for answers, or at least for discussion that may be of interest to students of musical aesthetics, to those interested in a dialogue between music and philosophy, to Wittgenstein scholars, and to lovers of music at large.

I suggest that at present we are not in a position to make the sort of evaluation that Michael Tanner proposes about Wittgenstein and music. Here are a few reasons why. Even though Wittgenstein wrote quite a lot about music, his remarks about music are scattered over his entire corpus, and so far no one has brought them together or taken stock of it. While the masterworks that bear his imprimatur, namely, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and the Philosophical Investigations, contain many neglected allusions to music, Culture and Value and the Wittgenstein Nachlass unexpectedly present us with a wealth of material on, or related to, music. These materials have not been collected together, nor have they received due scholarly attention, and unless we gather and carefully reflect on them, any judgment as to value seems premature, even impulsive, if only because unsupported. So the project of assessment requires a gathering of the fugitives, a serious consideration of remarks that philosophers in general tend to be dismissive of or take lightly, giving them the sort of sustained attention routinely given to Wittgenstein’s other remarks on issues of meaning, reference, intention, and so on.

What I aim to do here is a sort of prelude to such a task of appreciation and assessment. I begin with the music Wittgenstein listened to and gather the biographical fragments that indicate the role that music played in his life. Then I turn to the cultural background of fin de siècle Vienna to situate Wittgenstein’s musical tastes. Then I retrieve some of Wittgenstein’s remarks on music which bear on the question of how they might relate to his lectures on aesthetics and to his philosophical activity. In closing, I turn to real family resemblance and difference between Ludwig and his brother, the concert pianist Paul Wittgenstein.

Entire article here.

83. Don’t worry if you spend all your time pottering about here and there, and never just always in one place. Fiddling about may contain great prospects, and someone may inherit the result of your tinkering and do something useful with it. 

At the same time, it is disappointing when a bright person continually maneuvers about on the outskirts of his or her potential (I am thinking of the character Todd Hayes in the movie Lions For Lambs).  He is transparent and it is clear to us what he should do with his talent. We forget here that there is room for error in self-knowledge and that more is required to rehabilitate the injured will of a person than simply reiterating what we think he should do with his life. We must lead a person to his potential so that he may grasp it with his own two hands. But, when he is disinclined even to go this way with his teacher – what then?

82. There are cracks concealing dead water in any level extent. A person is the same: up close, you can see the blemishes on his face.



Henry Thoreau said: ‘Music is perpetual, only the hearing is intermittent’.

Music is seldom a silent interval once it is incorporated into the daily fabric of our life. Singing, whistling, humming, thinking, recollecting – the music interacts with these activities and becomes habitual in us, perpetual. Is it not perpetual?

And when we whistle a tune, do we always do so for ourselves? Sometimes we may whistle for our own entertainment or to call forth something memorable connected with the music. Seldom do we whistle for others. Whistling or humming are primarily expressive activities, and are not necessarily descriptive of some mental state which the whistling ‘describes’ in sound, as opposed to in words. For, it can be asked, a description for who? For what purpose? And, for what interest? There need not be anything in my mind which answers why people whistle. Just ask a whistler, and let him reply. Often, no answer is forthcoming (ask yourself the same question). Is whistling or recollecting music therefore without purpose? Of course not. Is an answer to this question even possible? What would it look like? What interest does it have? Or, is it just sufficient that people whistle, and that we are graced with expert whistlers, like Wittgenstein was in his day?

Do I hear what I whistle? Yes, of course. But, do I whistle a tune to hear it? Is that my purpose? Not typically. I whistle simply to give expression to the music itself. I have no opinion about it. Why does a person go walking in the same spot every day? ‘Because I enjoy the scenery’ would be a sufficient explanation, and typically no more is in the offing. Why should we expect anymore of what is habitual and wholly familiar? If music is perpetual, then the explanation of it is something very humble indeed and mundane. But, this doesn’t rob music of any power. It merely reorientates our tendency to make of it something transcendent and abstract by squaring it instead firmly in the comings and goings of ordinary people, like you and me. This seems more in keeping with the meaning of music. It is as customary and tangible as asking your child to fetch a chair.

Music is interwoven with life’s activities as an essential and habitual movement, which finds expression every day in human thought and deed. Religious music is a paradigm, no doubt.

Music. Human beings. Water in water.

81. What ‘being responsible’ means is given in the paradigm of the parent-child relationship. I think it really is the standard case. A child teaches the parent what it is to be necessary to someone, not in some speculative abstract sense, but in the meaning of it as reinforced by sheer experience day in, day out in the care and upbringing of the child. ‘The child is totally dependent on me’, the parent observes. And there it is: necessity. The whole gravity of it as contained in the face of the infant, who now looks at me.

To be necessary to someone is to live a meaningful life. To choose to be necessary to someone is something yet greater and more powerful.

A person may expend all of his energy on himself, on his daily woes and have none remaining for others. Such persons are merely ‘normal’. They are legion.  


From the Chronicle of Higher Education, March 21, 2008 

Are you nervous? Good. You should be. Anxiety means you are taking the enterprise seriously and your adrenalin is flowing. Without adrenalin you will be a boring speaker.

But too much anxiety will get in the way of what you have to do; too much adrenalin, and you will not think straight.

The purpose of the following rules on presenting a paper at a scholarly conference is to enable you to embrace your anxieties and put them to work — both for you and, just as important, for the arguments you have to make and the stories you have to tell.

Dorothy Kenyon, a great feminist and civil-rights activist who spent much of her time speaking in public, once observed that a public talk must “always seem to be improvised, but it must never be improvised.” If you want to hold your audience, you must plan ahead, and plan carefully.

Entire article here.

Zoe Hunn (far right), a British fashion model, has trouble recognizing the faces
of even her closest friends. (photo by John Midgley) 

From Wired, Issue 14.11, November 2006 

BILL CHOISSER WAS 48 when he first recognized himself. He was standing in his bathroom, looking in the mirror when it happened. A strand of hair fell down – he had been growing it out for the first time. The strand draped toward a nose. He understood that it was a nose, but then it hit him forcefully that it was his nose. He looked a little higher, stared into his own eyes, and saw…himself.

For most of his childhood, Choisser thought he was normal. He just assumed that nobody saw faces. But slowly, it dawned on him that he was different. Other people recognized their mothers on the street. He did not. During the 1970s, as a small-town lawyer in the Illinois Ozarks, he struggled to convince clients that he was competent even though he couldn’t find them in court. He never greeted the judges when he passed them on the street – everyone looked similarly blank to him – and he developed a reputation for arrogance. His father, also a lawyer, told him to pay more attention. His mother grew distant from him. He felt like he lived in a ghost world. Not being able to see his own face left him feeling hollow.

One day in 1979, he quit, left town, and set out to find a better way of being in the world. At 32, he headed west and landed a job as a number cruncher at a construction firm in San Francisco. The job isolated him – he spent his days staring at formulas – but that was a good thing: He didn’t have to talk to people much. With 1,500 miles between him and southern Illinois, he felt a measure of freedom. He started to wear colorful bandannas, and he let his hair grow. When it got long enough, he found that it helped him see himself. Before that, he’d had to deduce his presence: I’m the only one in the room, so that must be me in the mirror. Now that he had long hair and a wild-looking scarf on his head, he could recognize his image. He felt the beginnings of an identity.

Entire article here.


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