10 December 2008
28 November 2008
21 November 2008
18 November 2008
I am writing to thank you for the stimulating conversation we had a few days ago. I understand that any doubt I may have planted in you regarding your Memnorite faith will cause you two griefs. Firstly, if there is no Authority, then do concepts like good and evil have any meaning? Secondly, why be good if there is no Authority to reward goodness or punish wickedness?
With the first question, good and evil do have meaning, and their meaning derives from our biological and psychological imperatives. Any act that causes a shardan to flourish, physically and psychologically, can be considered good. And the act that causes suffering and harm can be construed as evil. Nowhere in this definition is there a need for an Authority to give meaning to ‘good’ and ‘evil’ independent of the biological and psychological reasons.
11 November 2008
No doubt in the future some intellectual with conceptual gas to burn will concoct a new (and equally ridiculous) label as postmodernity’s replacement. Let us hope that it will be more imaginative than current flaccid examples like ‘post-postmodern’ (those demonstrating such repugnant conceptual laziness are perpetrators of an intellectual crime and should be punished with a lobotomy, sans anesthesia). Still, the characteristics of postmodernity (and postmodernism), both the good and the regrettable, will outlast any succession of strutting pretenders. Human civilization from now on will always be a mixed bag of thoughts and their materialization, a hyper-pastiche of ideas, an oceanic collage of forms. Variety will proliferate and with it the potency of Chaos will forever test the limits of Order trying to contain it.
Newtonian icon. Euclidean totem. Herald of a coming monumentality. Midwife in the birthing of a new child of the skyline. Sentinel of change.
There is no decoration on a tower crane, logos and ads aside. Each bar, beam, truss, rope, jib, joint and sheave asserts its necessity. Its form is integrity made manifest. Its lines are a study in formal, elegant purity. No superfluity is allowed in its design. No compromise is permitted to its structural strength. Nothing less is expected of a Titan that raises humanity’s mountains, a giant under the command of the human mind, its tremendous power harnessed by that lore the physicists name ‘mechanical advantage’.
Where there are tower cranes, there progress hums its energy and promise. Ignored, derided, even cursed for its supposed ugliness, the crane stoically bears the insults and indifference. It suffers the slings of the vicious, whining rabble as it builds a safe shelter for them and their gross ingratitude. The sensitive soul will recognise and honour such magnanimity.
When the building’s completion approaches the final hours, down the crane comes, a felled Jurassic sauropod whose massive steel bones are taken apart in a climactic feast by scavengers in hard hats and fluorescent jackets. In a ritual enacted over and over again ever since the ancient Greeks, inventors of the crane, began edifiying the land, when its task is completed the crane is sacrificed.
Yet it will rise once more, an undying symbol of architectural creation, an immortal instrument of Man the builder.
Not for all the earth's riches
Nor the awe and high regard
Attendant to such
Not for status or prestige
That humbles others
As it makes their envy
Shall I ever be a cunt
Cruel, callous and vain
For I choose Virtue
And all her lovers
Are never wretched men
05 November 2008
24 October 2008
01 October 2008
In counterpoint to Nizan, his more famous compatriot Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that ‘every human endeavour, however singular it seems, involves the whole human race.’ Now here we have an example of the ‘abstract man’ myth Nizan rejected. So every single act of the individual involves the whole human race? And on what empirical evidence did Sartre base his grand statement? It’s a poetic declaration but one hardly demonstrable by a rigorous scientific method.
30 September 2008
To be the creator of one’s own meaning, values and purpose is to reject both fatalism (which places these things in the hands of an external ‘power’) and nihilism (which rejects all values and insists on the meaninglessness of existence). The defining characteristics of the free, brave individual are her self-affirmation (“I am capable of creating my own meaning”) and self-cultivation (“I live and practise my meaning”). She does not give unwarranted deference to an outside authority, whether temporal or divine. Any social law or custom that she chooses to follow is one that she deems justified and worthy of recognition. She cannot be coerced, that is although she may be physically forced to act against her will, she will not surrender that independent principle of self-creation, of self-choosing.
For the free and brave individual, her guiding principle is rational, enlightened, long-sighted self-interest. The laws of existence are the only laws she obeys without reservation; they are the constant stars blazing in the firmament by which she navigates her earthly vessel.
24 September 2008
10 September 2008
The contract of each person's existence has them as its sole signatory. The free individual is the one who sets his own contractual terms within its non-negotiable limits. His terms will allow none to hold hostage his freedom and happiness; not friends, not lovers, not family, not colleagues, not strangers. And if any of them should do so, it would only be by his consent, admitted or not.
The individual is responsible for keeping his own inner freedom. He surrenders it by choice, always, regardless of his rationalisations. His unhappiness and anger at those he perceives to be his emotional jailers stems from his own unacknowledged regret for giving up his liberty in exchange for trivialities.
Society fashions a steel chain it calls ‘sacrifice’ and ennobles it with a lick of gold. And so a symbol of slavery is transformed into a mark of pride. The person who sacrifices his freedom and happiness for the sake of others is hailed a hero. But when he requests that same sacrifice from others for his sake, thinking it only fair, he is taken aback by their hostility, their contempt! Hypocrisy is a one way street.
The free individual will not let himself be so chained. He rejects any sacrifice that is not consonant with the terms of his existential contract. Society has no claim on his life, not when it cannot die his death for him. Or live his life for him, with everything this implies.
28 August 2008
23 August 2008
15 August 2008
08 August 2008
Then, at the start of the book’s second act where Hamilton introduces the metaphysical basis of his argument for a ‘post-secular’ ethics, our foregoing relationship, which started out amiably enough, begins to sour. You see, Hamilton turns Kantian.
04 August 2008
01 August 2008
25 July 2008
In recent weeks new knowledge and fresh perspectives from sources as diverse as bioethics, sociology, neuroscience, art, mathematics, philosophy and religion (gasp!) have caused me to review my convictions regarding the supremacy of reason. It doesn't help that the issue is confounded by a generous serving of false dichotomies and false dilemmas (reason OR emotion, rationalism OR spontaneity). I'm beginning to notice the simplistic bifurcations that are so easily built by those with a vested interest in one side of the (often complex) issue.
For me the sense that a seeker of knowledge, of truth, should proceed along reason's road with caution is gaining strength. There are pot-holes on that road, and the detours and beaten tracks leading off it carry the promise of experiences that would complement, rather than contaminate, the sweet savour afforded by the reasonable life.
24 July 2008
16 July 2008
Capitalism's role is to enlarge the economic pie. How the slices are divided and whether they are applied to private goods like personal computers or public goods like clean air is up to society to decide. This is the role we assign to democracy.
This is in response to the common accusation of capitalism being the fountainhead of all sorts of social and environmental ills, from widening inequalities of income and wealth to greater job insecurity to climate change. This simplistic view is inaccurate and lays far too many sins at the feet of what is essentially a neutral tool of material and social progress.
14 July 2008
I am an amateur and I intend to stay that way for the rest of my life. I reject all forms of professional cleverness or virtuosity... As soon as I have found the image that interests me, I leave it to the lens to record it faithfully.
Kertesz's sentiments are mine too. I'd like to think that had we been contemporaries, we might have been friends who spoke a common photographic language. Not for us the slick techniques that strip the photo of its authenticity, its 'is-ness', often with the principal motive of selling a product and its associated glamour. Or at least that's what happens when photography is hijacked by purely commercial interests.
Kertesz's photographic philosophy emphasises a visual honesty that makes it a closer relative of photojournalism than of fine art photography, though his work bears elements of both. If there's one lesson that I've imbibed from Kertesz's approach to capturing slivers of Life, of reality, it's that the photographer must dare to be true to his subjective experience of whatever it is that compelled him to pause, to look, and to shoot. He must, as it were, repel the invading considerations of public opinion, 'expert' authority, personal legacy and stylistic ambition. Though Kertesz was not immune to these considerations - for one thing he had a deep psychological need for validation of his work and was easily hurt if he felt he had been unjustly denied the recognition he thought he deserved - nonetheless his stubborn refusal to abandon his subjective vision inspires me to remain true to mine.
08 July 2008
To have even a rudimentary understanding of these three fields of knowledge is to come closer to achieving that often elusive joy and contentment which are the rewards of self-knowledge. When a person is more aware of the how, why and what of his mind and all its facets including his character, beliefs, preferences and consequent actions, he assumes greater control of the direction and form that his unique life takes. Such knowledge is empowering, as empowering as sight restored to the blind.
30 June 2008
This 'culturalist' attitude is narrow-minded and betrays the vanity of those demonstrating it. Imagine if, upon their discovery, a non-Chinese were to refute the value of paper or the magnetic compass simply because such things were born of the ingenuity of the Chinese (therefore alien to the non-Chinese) mind. To take such a culturalist stance shows a blinkered view of ideas that contribute to the good and add to the marvelous storehouse of human knowledge and experience.
The value and social relevance of any idea should be deduced from its utility and consequences, independently of its culture of origin. All ideas spring from a human mind, and should be accounted good or bad based on the idea's effect on the human condition.
This 'demotion' in rank is compounded if the modern digital black-and-white photo isn't haloed within a frame, preferably of a sombre wood construction. Oh, and having plenty of white or off-white space between the photo and the frame (to let the photo 'breathe' you see) is a necessary element of credible art photography.
Frame any image and its rating on the 'credibility-o-meter' jumps up a few notches.
As a means of communication, symbols are valid if they bear a recognisable resemblance to that which they symbolise. The stylised male and female figures for washroom signage are examples of coherent symbology; the red rose symbolising romantic love is an example of the opposite. The association between the rose and romance is weighted with cultural and historical chains. Such a 'symbol' would be incoherent to an outsider who isn't initiated in the culture-specific visual language that is the context for the 'rose for romance' symbolism.
Coherent symbols are truly universal because they derive their form and meaning from objective reality, while limiting subjective interpretation based on a whim. Such symbols are the common property of all humanity for their validity does not depend on the cultural or charismatic power of any particular society, individual or organisation. No single creator or group of creators can claim authorship of a universal symbol, unlike the corporate logos that saturate the physical and mental environment. To put it another way, a society, individual or organisation may have the power to propagate incoherent symbols whose meanings are dictated by their creators (or owners, as with corporate logos that 'symbolise' the company's carefully constructed image and associated values), but coherent symbols and their meanings are independent of anyone's agenda. No person, group, government or corporation is powerful enough to switch around the meanings of the male and female washroom signs (at least without intending ironic humour), or convince people that the sign depicting a stylised airplane on the highway represents a train-station.
Far more good is done through individual action and commitment that doesn't depend on the security blanket offered by the chanting, gesticulating masses for its strength. Collectives have always been vulnerable to the skilled manipulations of a clever demagogue (or gang of demagogues). Gather a crowd in one location and they are at risk of succumbing to theatrics and bombastic rhetoric that fans their irrational fears, hatreds and desires. It's as if the mass of people act as conductors of overcharged emotional electricity, filling the very atmosphere with sparks that could start a conflagration.
Thomas Mann, the German novelist, wrote that "in a democracy that does not respect intellectual life and is not guided by it, demagogy has free rein, and the level of the national life is lowered to that of the ignorant and uncultivated." The same observation can be made of the individual; a person who holds scant regard for intellectual, reflective endeavour lowers his character to the detriment of his potential for fulfilment and happiness. Thus degraded in mind, he becomes a source of life-negating forces that act on those he comes into contact with, on society at large and on the global community.
There is a pervasive aversion to any form of elitism, which is a symptom of egalitarianism gone amok. This climate of often unwarranted hostility towards the best and brightest minds contributes to a widespread dumbing down of culture as ever growing numbers of philistines sneer at any display of intelligence and hold the educated mind in contempt. Mann wrote that "this cannot happen if the principle of education is allowed to dominate and if the tendencies prevail to raise the lower classes to an appreciation of culture and to accept the leadership of the better elements." This last line must be qualified; such leadership should only be accepted if it is worthy of respect and admiration, if it is a leadership based on virtue and a dedication to the highest humanistic principles as determined by the nature of humanity itself. To discover what these principles are that any leadership must uphold, Alexander Pope gives us a nudge in the right direction in his 'An Essay on Man':
Know then thyself,
presume not God to scan;
The proper study of Mankind
Those engaging in rituals and ceremonies of the aforementioned kind give a soundless cry of helplessness, a silent shriek of impotence. They confess an inability to live autonomously, to be the architects of their own meaning. Instead they surrender their powers of self-creation to the group in a pathetic attempt to escape from what is to them the unbearable burden of personal responsibility and accountability for the value of their own lives.
By seeking to 'lose' themselves in inane ceremony as a way of attaining salvation, as a way of entering the blissful place of the 'chosen', ritualists do indeed attain their goal; they lose their authentic selves. The tragedy is that they don't see this as a bad thing. Self-annihilation is actually what they desire.
This insult to my intelligence (a faculty for which my pride in is considered a Christian sin) comes right after I've read John Gribbin's fantastic book on the history of science, a field of endeavour whose participants - unlike Dr Screech and his fellow mystics - know all too well the possibility of arriving at certain knowledge, objective and indisputable given the available facts, through the diligent gathering and careful interpretation of empirical evidence, with Man's reason and his senses as indispensable tools.
Get enough people to believe in fairies and we'll have esteemed fairy-ologians holding forth with unmerited authority as they split hairs over the physiology and metaphysics of goblins, ghosts and ghouls. Meanwhile the epistemological progress of humanity is retarded as the naked emperors are lavished with undue attention and rewards, both material and psychological.
What many people, especially those apt to callously toss out catch-all statements, fail to realise or admit is that generalities are ultimately inaccurate, since they fail to take into account the subtleties, idiosyncrasies and the inherent differences among individuals. Intellectual honesty compels us to acknowledge that the only reason we resort to generalities is purely for convenience. It's expedient for one trying to make a point about a certain 'collectivity' of anonymous people to simply blanket them with a blithe generality. That way one is spared the effort in considering the exceptions to the rule, the complexities, the nuances, the individuality of the persons in the targeted collective. And chasing after expediency for its own sake has often birthed poorly thought out decisions with tragic results.
What is needed is for us to develop an aversion to generalities and recognise that proper evaluation and judgment applies only to the ideals, beliefs and actions of individuals. Appraise the moral character of the person instead of that of his arbitrarily assigned 'group' that he supposedly belongs to. This applies even if he himself subscribes to the notion of being a member of such a group. His error of reasoning need not be ours.
The book is immortal. Long after the self-promoting cacophony of e-book prophets has, with the help of hindsight, been shown to be but a hiccup in the history of the written word, people will still be flipping pages at their leisure, though those pages may be constructed of some wondrous material beyond our current imaginings.