Sunday, 16 February 2014

Einstein's notions of G*d

Below is an exchange between a young girl and Einstein that was featured recently on Huffington Post. I don't know if the link still works but I've copied the text for you, my readers.

Einstein clearly believed in G*d, but he didn't believe that G*d made personal intervention in the lives of people. There is a touching, unguarded admiration for Christ documented in Walter Isaacson's biography of Einstein where an interviewer asks him whether he accepts the historical existence of Jesus:

Unquestionably! No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life. (Isaacson, p. 386)

He had said earlier to the same interviewer that he "is a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene" that brought the question of the historical Jesus.

This is not to suggest that Einstein's notions of G*d are typical of what most people believe as he was a determinist and thought (or claimed) that the notion of free-will a merely useful fiction. Einstein had spent part of his schooling in a Catholic school and would have been exposed to the Gospels though he was not required to participate in the rituals of the Catholics:

January 19, 1936

My dear Dr. Einstein,

We have brought up the question: Do scientists pray? in our Sunday school class. It began by asking whether we could believe in both science and religion. We are writing to scientists and other important men to try and have our own question answered.

We will feel greatly honored if you will answer our question: Do scientists pray, and what do they pray for?

We are in the sixth grade, Miss Ellis's class.

Respectfully yours,




January 24, 1936

Dear Phyllis,

I will attempt to reply to your question as simply as I can. Here is my answer:

Scientists believe that every occurrence, including the affairs of human beings, is due to the laws of nature. Therefore a scientist cannot be inclined to believe that the course of events can be influenced by prayer, that is, by a supernaturally manifested wish.

However, we must concede that our actual knowledge of these forces is imperfect, so that in the end the belief in the existence of a final, ultimate spirit rests on a kind of faith. Such belief remains widespread even with the current achievements in science.

But also, everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that some spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, one that is vastly superior to that of man. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is surely quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive.

With cordial greetings,

your A. Einstein


Thursday, 13 February 2014

You know you're a "redneck" when...

I'm re-reading a book that I quoted from in my last entry called, Umberto Eco and Football, by Peter Pericles Trifonas (2001). It's a great little book for a fan of Eco's more academic writings on semiotics, and much kudos to Trifonas for his expert exegesis.

I've always been struck by the staying power of Harper - and Rob Ford for that matter - despite their own or their cronies' outrageous theatrics (wouldn't stoop to calling it "politics"). It clearly is not politics in the traditional sense of the word; it is something more visceral and sinister. And Trifonas' book gives us a better insight by way of Eco's writings as a social critic and semiotician par excellence.

There is an interview with Eco that I came across recently where he also mentions Berlusconi along the same lines as the phenomenon we are now witness to in Canada with Harper and Ford:

The thing is that the more outrageous the acts of Harper's CPC and Ford (as we've seen through much of last year and this year), the better it seems for their diehard supporters. This is because it really is not about politics anymore but quasi sports-team branding (of political parties) and loyalty to that brand.

Given that this is the case, the recent moves to gut Canada Elections Act of any semblance of founding democratic values and checks and balances where the CPC wants to unleash the fund-raising machine to be able to raise unlimited amounts of money for a political party, the CPC is clearly less a political party than a marketing scheme on steroids. And it has broken the keys to sector analysis and use of focus groups and, thereby, completely bypassing what are called trial balloons in traditional politics.

What makes this such a scary prospect is that I don't think even the marketing experts in the CPC are completely intellectually aware of the power they've tapped into by deliberately marketing a political brand rather than a traditional party that is at least beholden to a base of supporters who may at election time vote in or vote out that party.

In the following quotes of Trifonas' book let us, for the present purposes, insert "politics" and/or "political" in place of "sports" and see the full force of deliberately fanaticized power base of right-wing extremism (hooligans, they're called in Europe).

A 'continuous phatic discourse that deceitfully passes itself off as talk of the City and its Ends' is Eco's definition of [political] chatter. In it, he identifies the self-directed and autotelic nature of the terms of expression. [Political] chatter is a discourse that refers to itself and the internal circumstances of its production. Its ideological purpose to display emotion becomes a motivating end in itself, like venting to show displeasure. The passion of [political] chatter is the zenith of solipsism, Eco argues, given that the situational premises of the discourse are self-serving and thus critically vapid...(Trifonas, Umberto Eco and Football, p. 54)

Extreme right-wing political rationalization and justification is never about political discourse based on historical facts and because the more outrageous and viscerally evocative the claims the better it is, right-wing extremism is naturally anti-intellectual and utterly distrustful of conventional wisdom which it passes off as "elitist" and "sissified" - though when one merely scratches the surface of its political class it seems the ruling class is most apt and liable to mewl like a kitty in heat at the mere suggestion of a challenge to it maintaining power or perceived unfairness (in the system) to their cause, and once in power it tends to attempt consolidation of its power base by use of wedge issues and manipulation of long-standing power structures (which, for all that time, were always the root causes of their base supporters being hard-done by).

The commodification of [politics] could not happen without the fanaticism of the talk revolving around its signifying practices. (ibid, p. 54-55)

In the interview by The Guardian (which I just referenced above), Eco says:

"There are many small conspiracies, and most of them are exposed. [...] But the paranoia of the universal conspiracy is more powerful because it is everlasting. You can never discover it because you don't know who is there. It is a psychological temptation of our species. Karl Popper wrote a beautiful essay on that, in which he said it started with Homer. Everything that happens in Troy was plotted the day before on the top of Olympus by the gods. It's a way not to feel responsible for something. That's why dictatorships use the notion of universal conspiracy as a weapon. For the first 10 years of my life I was educated by fascists at school, and they used a universal conspiracy – that you, the Englishman, the Jews and the capitalists were plotting against the poor Italian people. For Hitler it was the same. And Berlusconi has spent all his electoral campaigns speaking of the double conspiracy of the judges and the communists. There are no more communists around, even if you look for them with a lamp, but for Berlusconi they were there trying to take over."

For Harper in Canada, it is a well-known fact that he blames the Liberal Party and the Eastern establishment in the guise of (or confusing) the manufacturing industry of the so-called rust belt which (at least in their eyes) is dominated by evil unions for the perpetual lack of progress and advancement of Alberta's oil-sands.

Trifonas continues:

The hallucination is shared because it is produced en masse and perpetuated on the [right-wing] talk shows, where the discourse is catalysed not essentially by [politics] itself, but by the talk of [politics] and by the reporting of it within the media. (ibid, p. 55 - Trifonas' own emphasis)

It has become increasingly that the reportage of what is perceived to be left-wing media on the internet is not itself immune to jabs and verbal attacks by right-wing nutbars whose viciousness is sometimes stunning. Mostly these posted comments are just passive-aggressive and unimaginatively contrarian (even when the report is favorable to the right-wing agenda), though many of them boldly challenge the "lefties" media outlet to post their high-strung and utterly vacuous rambles (themselves fine examples of "a discourse on the discourse about watching others' [politics] as discourse").

Now, about that title of this entry: You know you're a "redneck" mistake political discourse for sports-team loyalty. And pox on you if you can't see your fellow Canadians as being on and having every right to be "on the same team".


Sunday, 9 February 2014

"a theory of the lie"

There is a Greek word, techne, that is often translated into English as "craftsmanship", "skill" or "artistry". It's where we get our notions of "technical", "technique", etc. I take it to mean something more. In Inuit culture being a person meant something more than being just "someone". A name is not just a name; it is a soul. This soul has the capacity to learn and evolve. Just as a person over a lifetime learns and evolves, the soul (Inuit believe in reincarnation) also has that capacity but there is something that extends further than just one lifetime. People have natural talents but these talents and personality characteristics are usually attributed to a name (my mother was always fond of saying that I'm acting like my name, Kautainnuk - though I never really asked who that was).

There is another term from ancient Roman, genius, or  "the individual instance of a general divine nature that is present in every individual person, place, or thing" ( This is pretty close to my understanding of Inuit notions of the reincarnated soul.

Outsiders find it utterly perplexing this what is now called "suicide by Inuit". Inuit themselves are at a loss what is happening here. I think every family and individual in the Inuit community has felt the pain of losing someone or family member to suicide. This is a serious and highly complex issue. But I highly doubt, and have always remained skeptical that the problem of suicide is cultural and/or psychological.

After all, the words "cultural" and "psychological" are umbrella terms for "things we don't fully understand nor can find rational explanations for". As a long-time advocate for Inuit language and contemporary society, I've resorted recently to claiming that policy and program development intended for Inuit are not just "a job" that one does but is a multi-dimensional process affecting such things as our personal meditations on ethical questions, critically questioning development models, and seeking alternatives to our own understandings of what it is to be a human being.

I blame the uncritical acceptance of Benjamin Spock's and Jean Piaget's theoretical frameworks for child development. The influence of these people is largely unconscious, unconsciously applied and never questioned whether there are better alternatives and/or different possible outcomes and/or worlds. One just needs to watch the news to see that the West and its interventionist and universalizational foreign and military policies (and foreign aid, for that matter). It's Max Weber's nightmare, "the polar night of icy darkness", the natural end to Spock's self-centered philosophy and Piaget's locked-stepped ideas of human development. If you're not "normal" then you have no place in the marketplace. People don't tell you, but "normal is as normal does".

I'd suggest there are alternative interpretations. It begins with the idea that human beings originate from and thrive in family and social structures. Lev Vygotsky, a Russian child psychologist and contemporary of Piaget, held that children learn by way of social interaction and that the younger ones learn from the older, more knowledgeable ones whether these are peers or adults (he called this phenomenon, Zone of Proximal Development) - the point is that there is a sense of guidance and mutual dependence between student to student and teacher.

According to Vygotsky, the classroom is less a clinic or a workplace than a microcosm of the larger society. Society is not the manufacturing floor taking directions from an overseer, but a multi-cellular organism whose currency are memes passing through structures of interdependence and relationships. Therefore society is only as good and viable as the investments we make on its currency.

The title of this entry is taken from Umberto Eco (A Theory of Semiotics). Though he uses the phrase in a somewhat different context than how I'm using it here, it is not that inappropriate. I'm trying to link Eco's insights as a social/cultural critic to the most pressing issue facing the Inuit community today: suicide by Inuit. The "lie", you see, is not just on the Inuit but the service-providing industry which regards by default Inuit as not just outsiders but aliens whose humanity is rendered rather difficult to perceive (through no one's fault, though, at a certain point, we are all responsible for educating ourselves on the ethics of human relations).

Peter Pericles Trifonas (Umberto Eco and Football, 2001) writes at the very beginning of the book:

The culture industry runs sign systems rampant. The projections of its media exact immeasurable influence on minds young and not so young. It does not discriminate between those possessing innocence and those wanting knowledge in the age of consumer-orientated global economies in which the desire for instant gratification is driven by the digital mantra of the day. The culture industry teats the psyche of the neophyte and the mature reader of cultural phenomena equally - with the same amount impersonal discourtesy when it comes to arbitrarily evaluating, sorting and commodifying the signs of culture through the media and its simulations of reality. To yoke ethics with representational concerns is only natural for critical readers of culture. [emphasis added by me] (Umberto Eco and Football, p. 5)

The service-proving industry includes not just teachers, the police, the courts, social services, but also the those that provide psychological/psychiatric treatment. I was told by a therapist that "we attract those whom we attract because of who we are" which he said with a certain amount of glee and pompous self-satisfaction. I thought to myself: if that is the case, I hope he never has to deal with rape victims and victims of physical violence and psychological abuse...what do you think?

Trifonas continues:

A sign is all surface, all projection, all image: complete in itself and for itself...The viewer/consumer cannot alter the form of the sign, but only imbibe and complete its intentionality by aesthetic and cognitive, conscious or unconscious responses in relation to the image. (ibid)

Of course, not all service-providers are like that. I've met and worked with many who've never lost their "beginner mind" especially teachers and education experts I've had the pleasure of interacting with. Some have introduced me to great thinkers in whose thoughts and ideas they saw cognates with Inuit culture and philosophical insights.

On the one hand, the sign in itself is [...] intransitory, both subject and object, and needs no mediative completion by way of a subjective predicate that puts its meaning into action. It suffices as a symbolic representation of meaning itself. On the other hand, the sign is its own pedagogy; it teaches, but needs a viewer/consumer to fulfill the intentional and extentional limits of its communicative potential as a meaning-making tool. (ibid).

Indeed, "normal is as normal does".


Sunday, 2 February 2014

How many Tyler Durdens can we afford?

One of my favourite films is Fight Club, starring Edward Norton and Brad Pitt (1999). There are many memorable things in it: jack's notebooks; the dark humor; the biting commentary on human nature and society; etc.

Apparently, the film is based on a 1996 novel by Chuck Palahniuk with the same title. I haven't read the novel but I'm sure I'll enjoy it tremendously once I get the chance to read it.

The thing that struck me about the film was the complete and utter alienation that the main character feels, and the disillusionment and disappointment that confronts the everyman adrift in the unfulfilled (and, ultimately, unfulfillable) promise of consumerist society. It is an awakening to the drudgery that only dullards and (paradoxically) revolutionaries can blindly believe in - one, to strive to "make a living", and the other, to try and overturn. It is nothing less than a Benjamin Spock world whose only informing values are self-indulgence and mindless solipsism that can find no comfort in its inescapable solitude.

It takes insanity to see the insanity of such an unexamined life:

Man, I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who've ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need. We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War's a spiritual war...our Great Depression is our lives. We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off. - Tyler Durden, Fight Club

Wikipedia entry on the film presents the main character (Edward Norton) thus:

The character is a 1990s inverse of The Graduate archetype: "a guy who does not have a world of possibilities in front of him, he has no possibilities, he literally cannot imagine a way to change his life". He is confused and enraged, so he responds to his environment by creating Tyler Durden, a Nietzchean √úbermensch, in his mind. While Tyler is who the narrator would want to be, he is not empathetic and does not help the narrator face decisions in his life "that are complicated and have moral and ethical implications". Fincher explained, "[Tyler] can deal with the concepts of our lives in an idealistic fashion, but does have anything to do with the compromises of real life as modern man knows it. Which is: You're not really necessary to a lot of what's going on. It's built, it just needs to run now". (

The film is really well-crafted. Like a Pink Floyd album, watching it over again always reveals something new. It is an exercise in critical thinking. There are many philosophical ideas invisible in the background, played out by the characters but never explicitly referenced though the arguments are certainly carried to in extremis. All to great effect.

I sometimes watch CBC's Lang &O'Leary Exchange. There is a promo on now where Amanda Lang asks whether it's fair and equitable for CEOs to make so much more than the workers, and Kevin O'Leary chimes that he will not decide, that the markets will decide. He is the markets, he (and his board of directors) decides. Granted, O'Leary is just a cog on a wheel in the machine that "just needs to run now".

The whole irony of the ascendance of extreme right-wing movement to which O'Leary, Harper's gov't and people like Rob Ford have uncritically glommed onto is that the movement, this age of multi-national corporations, renders even them "not really necessary to a lot of what's going on".

Like Norton's analysis brilliantly articulates: [these people do not seem to realize that] "having inherited this value system out of [their own] advertising" it really has nothing but global nihilism to offer because outside the proof of purchase, the tick on a ballot, the fluctuations in the markets, it merely becomes "chasing the dragon" even for those ostensibly running the show, that it turns out (in the words of Pitt): "[they're] rooting for ball teams, but [...] not getting in there to play. [They're] so concerned with failure and success—like these two things are all that's going to sum you up at the end."