Friday, June 24, 2005

Not a philosopher?

"I am a philosopher." How pretentious does that sound? As far as believable careers go, that is about as far out in left field as one could imagine. I mean even a statement like, "I'm the king of France," seems a little more tangible: we know what France is, we know what kings are, and we can fit the whole enterprise into Jungian archetypes, or a Nietzschean will-to-power, and the whole thing seems plausible, but to say that someone is a philosopher requires a whole different degree of credibility. That's why people in my profession often have to find a way of specifying the thought so as to seem more humble and reasonable: I am a professor of philosophy, I'm a student of philosophy, I teach, I study Hegel, I study ethics. Whew! Back to reality, back to a certain degree of normalcy. Heaven forbid that someone who's going to be a professor of philosophy and a Philosophae Doctor should profess to be a philosopher. No, we do whatever any other academic does, we analyze things, we publish papers, we stand in front of lecture rooms and talk about texts. I suppose there's also a further risk in the title. If one were looking for a good person to run a business, or a good person to have a romantic relationship with, or to sit back with a couple of beers and watch a game of football, very few people think to themselves, "Yes, of course, that's just the situation that I'd want to have a philosopher around!" Philosophers, especially those of us with an analytical bent, have a notorious reputation for taking things apart, and this is not always a flattering trait. And the whole profession is built around it: we take apart the works of Plato, take apart General Relativity, take apart the concept of truth, take apart the process of taking apart the truth - you name it, and a philosopher somewhere has taken it apart. Sure, we try to put all these things together, but then they seem to be just taped back up in some awkward fashion, and all you have to do is sneeze and all the pieces are on the floor again. Here's a typical scenario: first you take some ethical principle, you break it down to its many individual principles, and soon you begin to doubt what the ethical principle was there to begin with, so you need to come up with a support. So a philosopher will say things like, "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” and sigh, a relief! Finally, clarity! But really, is that any better than "Don't steal," and, "Don't kill an innocent person"? Frankly, I would be much more afraid of the person following the universal maxim.

I suppose all this is rooted in just a too superficial understanding of the world. I think human beings just lack a certain ability to grasp complexity. It’s odd that the people one would most expect to recognize this fact, people who “never stop questioning,” the “philosophers” are often the worst at grasping this. I mean, I think if a human being could actually grasp all the things that go into a sound ethical decision, even Kant's wonderful project would seem like the blabbering of a two year old. I mean, I'm ranting a little, but really. I mean, take the movie I just watched, Closer. Think of all the interactions that happen in the course of that two hour movie. Fit them into an ethical maxim. You'd have to bring into account the desire to tell the truth, those strange plateaus one could get in a love relationship, the experience of having things not work out, what "compromise" means coming from someone who can act like a jerk. And this is not even beginning to touch things like looks and hand gestures, and the thousands of different ways that two people can embrace, or the way "I can't take my eyes off you" can resonate with one’s own life, or the look on Natalie Portman's character's face as she walks through the crowd of people who admire her for her beauty, for being a beautiful thing, regardless as to what is behind the photo. Of course, what I'm doing now - no matter how I try to hide it within this catalog, or to disguise it in variety - is a sort of analysis. Even recognizing complexity and the multifarious nature of the world around us is breaking it down, making reality a little easier to swallow, a little less real. I suppose there is a human need in doing this, and it's not like any of us can avoid it.

But sometimes it is just worthwhile to throw up one's hands and stop. To say that something is beautiful without actually being able to say why, to enjoy the sunlight glittering on a window just because it is sunlight glittering on a window, or to say something completely shallow, just because it’s completely shallow. There’s a certain humbleness in adopting such a perspective, and I suppose that ultimately it is this humbleness that makes many students of philosophy, including myself, hesitate to say that they are philosophers. So, in the spirit of this thought, I refuse to think about why I liked the movie, or even why I decided to watch it tonight at 1 AM, and instead I’m going to just go to bed.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Reflections on the Battle of Algiers

I recently watched Gillo Pontecorvo's movie Battleofalgiers La Battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers, 1965). I've had a few weeks to reflect on it, and it really is one of the masterpieces of twentieth century film. A violent and disturbing film, it was banned in France, and it apparently gave such a detailed and accurate view of how terrorism works that it was shown to a special audience at the Pentagon to help military personnel understand what they'd be up against in Iraq (NYTimes, September 7, 2003). The most striking thing about the film, however, is it's neutrality. Although it was made partly under the auspices of the Algerian government, within a few years of the events it portrayed, the film was shot in a strikingly non-partisan manner. The film is often thought to side with the Algerian revolutionaries, but I think this is effectively undercut by other aspects of the film, and although audiences may rejoice at the Algerian victory at the conclusion of the film, I can't imagine that any neutral audience member would describe the ending as unambiguously pro-Algerian (See comments on the class I was a part of below). It is true that steps were taken in order to make the methods employed by the French seem shocking. After all, the film has the character of Colonel Mathieu give a defense of the use of torture, and some of the montage effects are intended to paint the French in a less than appealing light. For instance, in one sequence the film cuts abruptly from a late night dinner party in a casual and pleasant tropical setting, to a scene in which members of the same party plant enough explosives in the Turkish section to bring down a house - as if both events were equally casual. This surely emphasizes a certain callousness. But all these effects are effectively counterbalanced with shots that make the FLN seem equally in the wrong. For instance, when the FLN decides to send four women into the French section of the town with bombs to blow up popular nightspots, Pontecorvo spends a significant amount of footage showing the pleasant and carefree atmosphere in the clubs before the bombing, thereby emphasizing the cruelty.

Pontecorvo's casting is also remarkable. Instead of hiring a cast of professional actors, Pontecorvo apparently hired a number of normal people in Algeria for the shooting, as well as the revolutionary leader Yacef Saadi, who basically plays a modified version of himself. Brahim Haggiag makes an amazing Ali La Pointe. A lot of information can be conveyed by an appropriately chosen lead character. His face in the movie is shown scarred by the lifestyle he leads before the revolution, and the hauntingly wild looks that he gives at times - looks that Pontecorvo chooses to dwell on for long periods of time with very close camera shots - emphasizes Ali La Pointe's motivations. Further, Ali's facial expressions contrast sharply with the facial expressions of Yacef Saadi's character, and gives the viewer an instant appreciation for their different outlooks on the revolution, an appreciation that is further emphasized by the different outcomes for each in the course of the film.

Another striking thing about the movie is the black and white photography. As an aside, it is interesting the effects that black and white photography can produce on contemporary audiences. When one is not distracted by color and the many visual effects that can be achieved through color film, characters' emotions and views are somehow expressed more vividly and clearly. This certainly seems to be the case in another one of my favorite movies, Der Himmel über Berlin . The film's use of black and white photography to portray the world view of the angels seems to capitalize on the effect - suggesting perhaps that an angel would somehow see through to the core of one's personality. The effect in The Battle of Algiers is similar, although it has more of the feel of a documentary, since the film enhances the feel of objectivity through its neutrality, and through occasional hand-held camera techniques. But the film does not intend to be a documentary, and Pontecorvo uses the camera work to great artistic effect. For instance, the black and white film also emphasizes the shapes of the buildings, an effect that makes the Turkish section of the town seem even more labyrinthine. Actually, this labyrinthine effect seemed to make the ending of the film that much more powerful; what we see at the end of the film are enormous crowds unconfined by walls and barriers, perhaps suggesting that the success of the Algerian revolution was the result of the coordination of the masses, rather than the focused approach of the FLN.

I thought the use of Bach (The Matthäus-Passion, I believe) in the opening was a little out of place at first, although it seemed a more reasonable choice when I rewatched that scene. The use of heavy drum beats to emphasize the building tension . . . especially in the bombing sequence were quite effective.

I saw this film with a class in which I was a course assistant. I was actually surprised at some students' reactions. Some who saw the movie thought that it gave a pretty good argument for the use of torture to obtain information. I found this a bit frightening, especially given recent activities of the Bush Administration, and found myself arguing against a number of students in the class, although my job was not to influence the content of the course. C'est la vie. Anyway, it is a disturbing movie, and certainly not something to watch if you're looking for an unambiguous pick-me-up.

Saturday, June 18, 2005


On the brick wall,

a shadow rises up to the windowpane,

and meeting the glass,

it spreads like paint on a slippery canvas,

rushing to the edges,

twisting in the light,

before once again becoming darkness

against the brickwork.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

A Beginning

Here it is. My very first post on my new blog. I suppose I reveal a certain naiveté at drawing attention to this fact, but hey, firsts are important, and so far as naiveté indicates a certain lack of experience with blogs, I suppose it's true. What's this blog for? Well, it'll hopefully be a way of letting my friends and family, who are now spread out all over the world, see what's up with me whenever they want to. They'll be photos, tales of trips, etc. I also think that it might be a good way of putting up some useful information. I'm constantly doing research, and I'll probably let people know about some of my most recent recipes, where to drink the best espresso, and where to go to get good Greek poetry. I suppose I also have slightly higher ambitions as well. It occurs to me that this might prove a valuable way of expressing a certain style of thinking that is more often expressed in my travel journals or in one-on-one conversations. Really, the more I study philosophy, the more I realize that deep conversation, really deep conversation, probably only happens between one or two people. One, you might ask? How can one person have a conversation? I suppose that conceptually there is a difficulty here, but what is this blog but a conversation between one? I mean, I might have someone in mind as I type, I might even have you in mind, but no matter how much I use my imagination to bring you to this room late on this Thursday night, the fact of the matter is right now it's just me and the keyboard. Do I have ambitions to occasionally have a very deep conversation with you? Probably, after all things get awfully boring without a serious thought every now and then, but of course I'm not making any guarantees. And life is too important to be taken too seriously. As for deep conversations with larger groups of people, I suppose threesomes sometimes work, and on chance occasions a whole room will feel capable of simultaneous communication, but I usually find at these moments that there is a bit too much interference. I mean, everyone comes to the table with slightly different viewpoints, and even if everyone leaves in agreement, there will be all sorts of connotations and innuendoes that are missed. This is a fine thing in ordinary conversation, but missing the finer points of communication spells havoc if someone wants to consider a thought or idea seriously. And having a slightly philosophical temperament, I do like to take ideas seriously.

But this will hopefully come in time.