Skip to main content

spring miscellany

Charlotte Salomon (1942), '#4835', detail from the incredible 'Life? or Theatre?'

A classic is a book that someone very powerful once said was good.


OOF. A friend once nicknamed me "Ellsworth". This is a brilliant insult; Ellsworth Toohey is the villain of Ayn Rand's Fountainhead - he's a fake socialist, a grand demagogue, and wolf in sheep's ideology. Despite his public moralising, he's one of her √úbermenschen - a brutal, self-actualised, and enormously manipulative spirit - and thus a Worthy Opponent for her pet mavericks. His role in the book is risibly didactic: "Yes, my heroes are assholes," Rand tells us, "but look how much worse they are when they pretend to be good!"


LOL. This is from a speech by the old pope, against gay marriage and queerdom and other good things:

People dispute the idea that they have a nature, given to them by their bodily identity, that serves as a defining element of the human being. They deny their nature and decide that it is not something previously given to them, but something that they make for themselves.

Thing is, stripped of sarcasm (and the assumption of an essentialist audience), this is actually an objective statement of pomo people's outlook! You could attribute this exact statement to a Stonewall spokesperson or Judith Butler without raising comment. This is funny.



With the recognition of the massive role of the enteric nervous system in constituting the self, mind-brain identity theorists will now be required to call themselves "mind/brain-gut identity theorists".

With research on the potential effects of the microbiome on human behaviour progressing apace, further regulatory additions are not ruled out at this time. (e.g. "Mind/brain-gut-microbe identity".)


CONTRA. One of my lecturers at Aberdeen was signatory to this historic document.

It's quite the roll call to be on (alongside Sen, Giddens, Kaldor, Robinson). Reading it makes me proud to be associated with the discipline, for once. However, the journal that re-published it placed it alongside a piece called "How could 364 economists be so wrong?" or some crap, so posterity has some work to do.


SQUICK. Learned about two absolutely horrible disorders today:

  • The teratocarcinoma. (A cancer that tries to grow an embryo inside you. They've been known to feature eyes and teeth.)

  • Infant inguinal hernia. (i.e. A burst groin.) Happens in 1/6 of preemie baby boys.


PHALL. Best summary analysis of modernism I've ever seen:

[In the early C20th,] the glorious unity between...imagination and sight, intellectualism and love, and self and family was destroyed by unrelenting disease and death. In its place arose a culturewide self-protection in form, abstraction and misogyny. Deprecate a joyful woman as "ordinary" because you cannot see her beauty. If the world is full of hidden riches, do not see them as eathly constellations but exploit them for gain. If the visible world is a miracle, rename it a wasteland before it has a chance to decay or die. If you risk loving your family, declare domesticity insupportable in case that family should disappear. And if you are in any danger of knowing, valuing, loving yourself, trade in such knowledge for the ineffable, immeasurable, annihilating sublime, for that is pure and invulnerable to desire, and hence incapable of causing disappointment. Above all, value freedom -  from love, desire, family, objects - for then you will be immune to contingency and context: you will truly be a Ding an sich. And if a certain kind of art can create this feeling, then make that art your goal.

- Wendy Steiner

You could put this more briefly - as "Modernism was phallogocentric" - but in doing so you'd lose the thought's wit, emotion and persuasiveness.


SHOCKER. Turns out that my apparently ascetic, countercultural morals entail worldly ambition. (Said morals: "anti-real satisficing pluralist consequentialism".) This is disorientating. For a full decade of my short life I was fated to be a bohemian academic contra: I was raised on punk's diluted critical theory, imbibed Pilger and Chomsky at 14, was an antitheist by 15, etc. As with many anti-capitalists, my rejection of standard lifestyles was only partly about capitalism, as much about trying to express myself. The options for my adult life were, then, third-sector work; art; or academia. Once I became a utilitarian, only the first of these seem maximal - and once I studied the history of foreign aid (and charity generally) even that looked dodgy.

The usual route to careerism is simple and contemptible:

How punk leads to careerism:
Step 1) Moral outrage at the state of the world.

Step 2) Contrarian rejection of the Script. (i.e. of consumerism, status acquisition, casual selfishness, the nuclear family, nationalism, patriarchy, and the globe's obsession with "practicality", a.k.a productivity.)

Step 3) Learn economics. Learn about the historical failure of aid and revolutionary politics, but also about effective altruism.

Step 4) Meta-contrarian rejection of the scripted rejection. (In particular, embrace practicality as a moral necessity.)

Step 5) Grasp idea of professional philanthropy. Swallow disdain of private sphere for the greater good.

Step 6) Career. Give as much as possible to demonstrably life-changing charities.

There is an at least ok socialist critique of professional philanthropy. (A longer post about it is forthcoming.) We cannot reduce moral responsibility to the cash nexus: we have awful experience with systems that allow one to buy absolution. Also, working in oil or speculative finance is plausibly too harmful, even given the considerable donations it yields. But this remains the single most powerful way an individual can redress global economic inequality - and it doesn't preclude social activism if you think that's an effective route to making the world suck less.


Revolution is the lie that wants to be true.


OH. We have tentative reason to believe that severe calorie restriction extends lifespan. If the evidence continues to build, we'll have to slightly re-evaluate the cruel dietary strictures women face as a result of pathological body standards. You could argue that dieting - that sadistic hundred-year calorie-restriction project - produced more bad, oppressed years of life, but it's still a confounder.


RETCON. Rewritting two of my big pieces atm, watch these spaces: my lengthy gush about Joanna Newsom and my measured estimation of Scottish independence. The changes are mostly stylistic, though I am now openly in favour of the latter.


GRR. A nasty little Platonist equivocation hidden in our language: when we use the word "ideal" we risk evoking two very different senses: ideal as in abstract, and ideal as in best.


I still quite like the idea, although — as with other conceptual art projects — perhaps as much is achieved by describing it as by actually creating it.

- Julian Baggini

talking about ritually burning his mouldy copy of the Britannica.


HOMONYMITY. Some philosophers have a problem: you can't easily google them because pop stars get in the way.

  • Neil Tennant, philosopher of mathematics at Ohio State, is not a Pet Shop Boy.
  • Michael Lockwood, philosopher of physics, is not Fiona Apple's guitarist.
  • Robert Plant, metaphilosopher and Continentalist, is not in Led Zeppelin.

Though obviously Charles Taylor has a rather larger problem.



 I'm a fan of philosophy, but only a student of economics. A spy at your service.