The Antidote

In Washington DC with my three small boys. Breakfast dispatched, and it’s off to Air & Space! Where else, you may ask. It was a sunny, mild day on the National Mall, a barker sold my six-year-old a baseball cap, and soon we were looking at rockets, spy planes, biplanes, jets and telescopes.

And any visit to a big science museum requires an Imax. The thing on offer was “Journey to Space.” The little guys were restless and the 3-D glasses kept falling off. I couldn’t tell you how long it lasted: it was like a trance. Long perspectives on mountains, coastlines, lit-up cities at night, from an aerial and then from a space perspective. Teams of engineers working together on making things go: folks who understand the concepts of truth, consistency, operability and experiment. Teams of astronauts floating around in space, running experiments, exercising, having a laugh. Handshakes and hugs between members of different national astronaut teams: in space, it doesn’t matter what country you’re from, human company is rare and precious. The weightlessness of the bodies and the omnidirectionality of the corridors inside the ISS (up and down are matters of convention) matched the mannerisms of the men and women sharing the craft: cheerful, competent, tolerant, non-hierarchical, task-focused people.

I’m one of those Americans whose belief in this country is aspirational: my patriotism connects with a set of ideals and not with “my country right or wrong.” Knowing how massively we have failed, over time, to honor high-sounding commitments, I can’t imagine living in a self-congratulatory narrative about “the greatest country on earth” that depends on obliterating memories of slavery, murder, genocide, fraud, and theft. Even the space program, I know, was cooked up out of military objectives and public relations. We need to know ugly history. The uglier, the better for our morals. But watching crews of science-minded people creating amazing adventures for our whole species, with indifference to the race, gender or income of the scientific talent brought to bear, allowed me to forget for a few minutes of blissful relief the ignorance, resentment, bigotry and sheer non-fact-based screaming that seem to have overtaken “the American way.”

A few hours later, it comes to me that a Miltonic Satan would look on that pragmatic, inquisitive, open-minded, multinational group in zero-gravity not with admiration but with envious resentment, and find satisfaction in the explosions that killed fourteen members of that “élite.”


Credunt quia absurdum

A sensible analysis of the disposing conditions to a certain voting pathology. Lofton gets to the point without invoking trailer parks, missing teeth or deer carcasses.






Do you think that wife-beating, gay-baiting and race-raging are what make a Real Man Real?

Or do you find that a Real Man, by definition, despises and combats such activities?

If you answered yes to the first question, you must be a Trump supporter.

If you answered no to the first question and yes to the second one, congratulations, you are a normal person.

Hold onto that insight.


The Ex-Files

It’s one of the most famous Gotcha! moments in the history of the social sciences. Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949) presented language, economy, and kinship as variants on the same logical “structures”: the exchange of messages, the exchange of goods, the exchange of women. Women might suspect something strange was going on with their transformation into analogues of messages or objects, with men doing all the exchanging, but Simone de Beauvoir reviewed the book graciously and added: “although a woman is something other than a sign, she is nonetheless, like language, something that is exchanged.” Then Gayle Rubin questioned the objectivity of Lévi-Strauss’s description, making it complicit with the objectification of women (“The Traffic in Women,” 1975). Levi-Strauss’s feminist cred was not augmented by the fact that, as Jean-Pierre Mileur observes, in Tristes Tropiques (1955) it is “only after around three hundred pages” that Lévi-Strauss “gets around to mentioning that his wife accompanied him on his expeditions– and then to say that she fell ill and he had to leave her behind.”

What a dreadful pig, you may be saying. But another piece of the puzzle emerges from Emmanuelle Loyer’s biography (Claude Lévi-Strauss, Paris: Flammarion, 2016). Lévi-Strauss wrote Tristes Tropiques at top speed during several months in 1955, typing up his reflections and old notes with constant advice, input and critical reading from his wife Monique, who received every batch of thirty pages fresh from the machine and returned them with interleaved commentary (Loyer, 415-17). A partner in dialogue. But the “wife” who fleetingly and belatedly appears, like a suppressed excuse, in TT is not Monique but the first wife, Dina. Could it be that an unwillingness to dwell on his ex and the collapse of his first marriage in this sustained communication with his second wife accounts for Dina’s near-invisibility? If a marriage is an exchange of women between groups of men, already a scandalous idea, the exchange of a woman (or of a sign representing her) between a man and a woman must be so complicated a matter that it can hardly be allowed to happen. In the fuller account of the book’s composition, it’s not that women are invisible, it’s that one woman is a topic that the male narrator would like to avoid in his address to another woman. The two women are thus both out of the frame–but in two different ways and for two different reasons. The invisible omnipresence of the one explains the near-invisibility and near-absence of the other.



Yes, my fellow Americans, it’s time to mount a vast public campaign to raise awareness of the illegitimacy of tattoo-removal services. Didn’t you know that a tattoo is supposed to be permanent? If people can just go and get their tattoos removed, what is the meaning of having a tattoo in the first place? An insincere, non-binding tattoo must be the most abject thing on earth. No wonder public morals have declined! And those poorly sourced Chinese characters you’ve repented of, those political slogans that you’ve realized were spelled incorrectly, those cartoon characters and commercial brands you’ve grown out of– well, if life has given you bad tattoos, turn them into lemonade! There must be consequences; the individual’s history must be legible and indelible. Five years’ imprisonment for the person seeking to have their tattoos removed; life behind bars for any individual procuring, facilitating, or offering to perform tattoo removal. For tats are, by definition, forever.

Get this on the ballot in referendum-friendly states, bribe a few congresspeople, go on the talk shows frothing at the mouth, and while the frenzy is at its peak, slip in a repeal of Citizens United and a real single-payer health system. Thanks.


App Locally

There’s been some grumbling on the web about neighborhood information services such as NextDoor — the gravamen is that such services are inherently racist, or foster racism.

There’s a solution. Move to a different neighborhood. I live on the South Side of Chicago and while I wouldn’t call the NextDoor service here spellbinding, you don’t see messages from people freaking out because they saw a black person drive by. The astonishing reason behind this is that 80 percent of the people in the neighborhood are themselves black. Instead, you have requests for information about house painters and dog walkers, announcements of festivals, complaints about noise, calls to pester the alderman about this or that traffic issue. Normal people dealing with normal stuff. Some lifestyle scuffles, but Pantone numbers don’t enter into it.

It’s not the apps that “have a racism problem.” It’s the composition of the neighborhoods. Do something about that before you blame the software designers. Or have the apps become the reality itself?



Further to the Man who Forgot Words

At the aquarium the other day, a perfectly warm-and-fuzzy slide show meant to raise the public’s ecological awareness was prefaced with the title screen:


Now of course I know what they wanted to do: harness two slogans that people normally respond to in push-button, sleepwalking fashion, “one world” evoking those feelings of kinship with animals and nature, “making a difference” prompting us to get out our checkbooks and do something for the human-created organizations that are supposed to protect bits of nature. But having spent months reading the wrong kind of books, I couldn’t help thinking that if you are all about “One World,” “making a difference” must be the beginning of the downhill trend. If Laozi had been on that advertising account team, “One World: Stop Making Those Differences” or “Unmake a Difference” might have been the more consistent message (but then, who would have written checks?).


An Unhelpful Thought

Zhuangzi– the great Zhuangzi, who seems to go everywhere with me these days– is credited with a nugget of wisdom that in virtually all translations reads similarly. 荃者所以在魚,得魚而忘荃;蹄者所以在兔,得兔而忘蹄;言者所以在意,得意而忘言。吾安得忘言之人而與之言哉?

I take Burton Watson’s translation as the baseline for English versions: ‘The fish trap exists because of the fish; once you’ve gotten the fish, you can forget the trap. The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit; once you’ve gotten the rabbit, you can forget the snare. Words exist because of meaning; once you’ve gotten the meaning, you can forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can have a word with him?”

Fair enough. No need to paraphrase. Zhang Longxi pointed out that “a man who has forgotten words” wouldn’t be much use as a conversation-partner, so we should probably read that clause as meaning “a man who will forget words” (and, by implication, capture my meaning). Also good.

But one problem remains, and that’s the parodic quality of Zhuangzi. He constantly picks up some pearl of wisdom, fits it into a slingshot, and uses it to shatter another vessel of wisdom that had been gathering dust on the shelf. Were it not for the lack of corroborating texts, I would be tempted to think that the first three segments, about fish, rabbits, meanings and their respective traps, were quoted from some source that took them straight as a proof of the priority of meaning over words; and that then Zhuangzi (whoever that might be) took things to their logical endpoint by saying, “Well, if you think that, then you’d probably advise me to find somebody who has forgotten words and have a word with him, right?” In other words, the problem Zhang Longxi fixed might not be the problem that needs fixing; Zhuangzi might have been laughing at the solemn ends-and-means calculus of conventional attitudes about language. The first three segments would be as it were in quotation marks, and the absurd conclusion would be where our author wants to go. Zhuangzi fans, your reaction? Or have you all obediently forgotten words? (Must go check on those fish-traps.)



A friend from Beijing brought me a bottle of rice wine with a pagoda on the label: 塔牌紹興酒, or “Pagoda Brand Shaoxing Wine.” It reminded me of an earlier incarnation of that apparently famous brand, made in Taiwan: different bottle shape, different label, almost the same name, but complemented with an English transliteration: TART-PIE. There’s a whole theory of language in that designation.

The word for “pagoda” or “tower” is, in fact, borrowed in Chinese as a transliteration of “tart”: you can buy shuiguo ta, or fruit “pagodas,” in Taiwan. Before anyone gets excited, let me point out that they’re one-storey affairs. Knowledgeable consumers are aware that the “ta” is there as a transliteration, not as a unit of meaning. “Pie” is sometimes represented as pai (meaning “send,” fourth tone, 派). But every unit of sound, every syllable, in Chinese writing carries some kind of meaning. The translator of the Taiwanese rice wine label must have assumed that English works in the same way. If you wanted to translate the Pagoda Brand name, then, you would have to find words in English that had meanings and were phonetically similar, thus Tart-Pie. The absence of any relation between the wine and tarts and pies initiates the English reader into the way Chinese pastry buyers deal with “sendings” and “pagodas”: they just step over the misunderstanding and enjoy a fully semantic though partly nonsensical universe.



the First Seven Jobs meme

  1. Lutenist of fleas, Wallace Stevens Industries
  2. Apprentice dragon butcher, Nanhua Zhengjing Supply Co.
  3. Supreme Court justice
  4. Secretary-General,  NATO
  5. Golf
  6. Drink
  7. Television

Ebola and Ethics

Ebola and ethics? Sure. Don’t listen to anyone who thinks that an emergency calls for desperate measures including the suspension of that pesky distinction between right and wrong. In fact the existence of an emergency calls for us to be especially attentive to all that ethics stuff, not to treat it as annoying paperwork that you sign your way through on the way to doing something ruthless and necessary. See the Letters column of the British Medical Journal if you don’t believe me.



“An Armed Society is a Polite Society”?

Really? People go around saying it. But, please, ma’am or sir as the case may be, I beg to differ, if you don’t mind. Seek the proof in the pudding. We have got ourselves the most heavily armed society on earth, and I don’t see us being any less rude, overbearing, hot-headed, irrational, stubborn, nasty or mean than any of the neighbors– indeed, our behavior speaks louder than the words of a hack sci-fi writer, sometimes abusively attributed to Jefferson. Pretty soon the only form of politeness we’ll know is the twenty-one-gun salute.