Ciceronian: Salve, fine sir, could you stop eating that beef?

Crassus: Why ever would I do that?

Ciceronian: Not only is it good for you (two beef meals a week are an independent risk factor for heart attacks), but it will do great benefits for our planet. Meat (and especially beef) is probably the single largest per capita contributor to carbon emissions. You would be eliminating the massive amounts of fossil fuel associated with beef production 54 kilocalories of fossil fuel to one calorie of nutrition that you are eating. You would also be restoring an area the size of Russia and Canada combined to forests, which is now pasture. This could mitigate climate change by as much as 70 percent, because of regrown forests that would serve as a carbon sink.

Crassus: But its so tasty!

Ciceronian pulls out gun and shoots himself in the head.

I go through some variation of this conversation at least twice a week. How is “its so tasty” an argument? Not that I even want all to be vegetarians (though this would not be a bad thing), but do you really need to eat beef 12 times a week? How about 1 or 2?

Pure Evil for the environment.


February 25, 2010

I have really, really enjoyed the first issue of The Jewish Review of Books. I’ve especially enjoyed reading the 11X19 print edition, particularly since Abe Socher’s introduction to the publication talks about the presumed death of print as prophesied by Dr. Egon Spengler. It can still be enjoyed online of course.

The content is quite varied, with contributions as disparate as Harvey Pekar, Dara Horn (writing on Isaac Rosenfeld and the death of the luftmentsch) and Hillel Halkin (who just strikes me as a baller).

Welles’ Trial

February 22, 2010

Orson Welles adaptation of Kafka’s Trial is a masterpiece of adaptation. I don’t mean to suggest that it in itself is brilliant (though it often is), rather, that it’s one of the most interesting adaptations I’ve ever seen. Kafka’s story does not lend itself easily to film; so much of its brilliance lies in its narrator’s voice (how would you work in “Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K”?) and in its play with the genre of realism. Everything seems as if it’s obeying the laws the laws only to get farther away from reality as we learn more and more about its world. There’s also no coherent plot.

Welles’ adaptive genius is the mis-en-scene. Kafka’s spaces are often narrow and claustrophobic whereas Welles makes them overly monumental, though paradoxically still claustrophobic: it makes the bureaucracies seem even more impressive/oppressive. Rooms are sparse and minimal as if the world can no longer be at all decorous. The costuming give the world a classic-noir feel instead of the Imperial feel of the original. The world is recognizably Welles and Kafka.

And then there’s Joseph K.  The casting is brilliant. Two years after playing Norman Bates–still bearing the mark of killer–Anthony Perkins oscillates between innocence and guilt. But mostly, he’s just frustrated that he always seems two-steps behind everyone else. It’s a brilliant move by Welles who saw The Trial as a comedy. Instead of a morality tale, we’re suddenly given an enlightened Peanuts Strip with K as Charlie Brown. He never quite says “Arrgh” or “Good Grief!” but the sense of it lies behind everything else.

For those who haven’t seen many late Welles’ movies, The Trial is an excellent starting point. The production value manages to be high even as the budgets are low, and the artistry is there even as it struggles to come across in lesser settings. But most of all, it’s simultaneously brilliant and frustrating, something you’ll love dearly in retrospect even if you can’t love in the moment.

Return of the Repressed

February 19, 2010

I was really into Hi-Fi audio in high school. I never had enough money to build a system of my own (though I did invest in a pretty decent Dolby Digital 5.1 system for DVDs), but I always romanticized building a Hi-Fi and looked into component parts. Then I got an iPod and I learned to stop worrying about quality of the recordings. Who needs an album to sound good when you can so easily switch to the next?

Then a few weeks ago I bought a record player. I haven’t had one in over a decade and I’d forgotten that they really are a more inviting way to listen to music. I’d wanted one the last few years, yet somehow never got around to it, but a little bit of extra cash inspired me (I can still hear president Bush telling me to go out and spend to save America). I love it. Even playing LPs through my computer with not-so-good speakers was an improvement over mp3s of the same songs.

And just like that, I started to rediscover my inner audiophile and started pouring over blogs and magazines trying to learn about components. I inhaled pages and pages worth of “The Audiophiliac” and stereophile features. I developed a bad case of commodity fetishism and knew that I would have to buy something reasonable now to stem the chances of a real malady.

For purposes of convenience, I was going to incorporate a computer into whatever system I bought. Would I need a DAC? These didn’t even exist the last time I cared about audio. I started having dreams about the miniwatt tube amplifier. It’s insanely low-priced and small enough for my space. I’d need to get some decent speakers to go with it, but given the inherent limitations of the amp, I wasn’t going to need something so extravagant; just some decent bookshelf speakers.

But the more I read, the more I started to want products I didn’t think that I needed, like Sony’s new $100 HD radio. The price is right, but the only radio I really listen to is Pandora. Sure, if I bought the tube amp I might listen to the HD radio, but that’s still a $100 guess. No, I have to think about what I do right now. And the best solution was to spend a reasonable amount of money (200) on a reasonable product: the Audioengine a2 powered bookshelf speakers. After doing research, it seemed like the worst case scenario would be a great set of computer speakers. I was comfortable with that.

Thankfully, we aren’t talking about worst case scenarios. The speakers are small and beautifully designed, and the audio sounds incredibly smooth. I bought the vinyl of “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” and listened to it over the RCA jacks, bypassing the computer altogether, and was shocked at the difference. There’s a luxurious quality to Jeff Mangum’s voice that I’d never heard on the CD or mp3. There’s a palpable emotion to his singing that’s reflected in any format, but listening to an LP through good speakers let me into some of the delicacy and, yes, heightened the spirituality. Distortion took on a musical quality, and I started to recognize so much more  instrumentality in the ethereal background noise. I was hearing something new.

Perversely, it makes me want a new tube amplifier even more. Mal du phonograph indeed. I’ll let you know as soon as I get one.

Haneke’s “The White Ribbon” is a movie that insists upon a moral framework but refuses to provide one. It is generally a movie about framing, about how we see and what we look at. The camera is incredibly motionless, emphasizing the fact that just because something is imperceptible, that something is outside the immediate frame, it is still a part of the cinematic universe. There’s much that we can’t see in this movie. Sometimes we hear it and imply the actions, and other times we don’t have anything beyond a fragmented understanding of what’s just taken place.

Accidents, horrifying events, torture all take place in this small town, but we have no real way of explaining things. In fact, we often don’t know what has occurred. A man hangs. Suicide? Murder? No explanation. A fire. Arson? Accident? The movie refuses to tell us even what mystery we’re dealing with, let alone whether or not we should look and ask questions of culpability–this despite the fact that it’s structured like a classic detective story with one character trying to explain everything that’s been going on.  It all remains a mystery. And, if so, we need to be playful with our reading of mystery itself.

The idea of a “mystery”cult, or even the Christian mystery, is that once you’ve been exposed to the mystery, the mystic aspect, everything becomes clear. Haneke leaves us on the outside. Without knowing the mystery, the events remain not only obscure but insoluble.  We can only guess since we don’t even know the hermeneutic frame. The film’s narrator suggests the Holocaust, but that appears to be a gambit: it offers one inexplicable tragedy as a solution for another. The question, again, is one of framing: how do we even start looking at these problems if we don’t know what mystery governs, ties every(some)thing in place? Read the rest of this entry »

Find Yourself a Nemesis

February 18, 2010

In case you missed it, the hot news in the world of American public intellectual culture is the tit-for-tat between the Literary Editor of The New Republic Leon Wieseltier and Andrew Sullivan who now blogs at The Atlantic.  The New York Times recently offered a useful recap of the who-said-what.  The New York Times is now the Us Weekly of the world of letters.

The argument is about one man accusing the other of antisemitism; it offers insight into a once and actual friendship and prompts questions about the relationship between public and private selves, between emotions and opinions. It touches on issues that I ordinarily would love to comment on, but something very different occurred to me when I decided to post about it.

This argument shows above all the importance of debates, particularly those of an adversarial nature, for the making and defining of ideas and careers. Often our thinking is shaped through dialogue, sharpened by disagreement and reinforced in the face of contrary convictions. Even more often intellectual careers are launched, propelled and defined by famous debates. William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal; Alan Dershowitz and Norman Finkelstein; Edward Said and Bernard Lewis; the list could go on for quite some time.

And so I say to you, my own cyber intellectual community: Find yourself a nemesis. Start a fight with a foe or friend over quibbles real and imagined. Distinguish, define, deliberate and discourse. Most important of all make sure there are people around to see, hear or read about it.