Swans Commentary » swans.com July 30, 2012  



Special Summer Issue: Books, Music, Films


Mind Food And Epicuriosities


by Harvey E. Whitney, Jr.



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(Swans - July 30, 2012)   Sometimes we think that there can be no pleasure obtained from intellectual pursuits, and this opinion is largely the product of a socioeconomic system that has long dispensed of the Greek tradition of contemplating and discoursing of knowledge for its own sake.

We should note about Athenian society -- before the Peloponnesian Wars -- that knowledge of foreign ideas was tied to social standing; if an Athenian had absorbed aspects of Egyptian or Persian culture, this absorption was a sign of his wealth, that he had the means to go to those places and obtain information about their traditions.

Our socioeconomic system will not allow knowledge for its own sake to be a worthy goal since such knowledge generally isn't innovative in terms of the propagation of our technologies (think cell phone "apps" or virus protection software) or necessary for the promotion of big finance.

So, given the above, let me list several books, films, and works of music that are intellectually stimulating, and in an ancient Athenian view could increase your socially recognized wealth.




•   Critique Of Pure Reason (1781), by Immanuel Kant (Norman Kent Smith edition)

Kant's Critique is a must read for discussing the limits of the human mind. In Kant's time, the eighteenth century, the Newtonian model of the universe was highly persuasive and very useful in determining planetary motions, but religious institutions sought to control science. Kant worried about religious enthusiasm, which itself was one challenge to the Newtonian universe by positing transcendent worlds of miracles or phenomena that did not behave according to Newtonian law. The other challenge to the clockwork perfection of the Newtonian universe was David Hume's questionings of the law of cause and effect, a central assumption of the Newtonian science. If cause and effect is simply a relationship imposed upon the phenomena (a relationship brought about through something as lowly as human habit or custom), we can never know how the phenomena behave independently of our experience of them. Subsequently, how can cause and effect serve as an example of an absolute physical law? Kant saw his task as charting a course between the rocks of skepticism and dogmatism, so that Newtonian science could go forward without any philosophical or religious challenges. But, he also thought that there were limits to human reason. Though Newtonian science correctly predicted the behavior of physical objects, that was the extent of its use, it could not begin to describe the noumenal world (or things in themselves).


•   Philosophical Investigations (1953), by Ludwig Wittgenstein

Wittgenstein's work sought to reduce all philosophical problems to language problems. While Kant thought that space and time (that is, Newtonian space and time) were a priori intuitions, Wittgenstein did not have any of this. For Kant's claim seems to suggest that we are born with pre-linguistic knowledge of the world. For Wittgenstein, all knowledge is linguistic or the exhibition of linguistic behavior.


•   Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974), by Robert Pirsig

Pirsig's book is more of a philosophical journey that hits on some of the issues raised by Wittgenstein and Hume, while reconciling them with the course of the narrator's life.


•   Invisible Man (1952), by Ralph Ellison

Ellison's book fits well within the canon of existential literature (think Camus, Sartre, etc). One could say that it adapts the existentialism of those writers, but those writers never really addressed in any depth the experience of African Americans in the United States in the time between the turn of the twentieth century and the 1950s. Ellison's central character is a black narrator who in this time period looks for salvation from social institutions and organizations in American life: within the southern black community, the church and historically black colleges, within the northern community, the Communist Party (the book identified this group as the "Brotherhood" but the "Brotherhood" could also signify a black nationalist organization). Each geography and each group provided frustration for him (and let's not forget about the negative white attitudes towards blacks during this time were also obstacles for Ellison's protagonist) as he sought a path towards authenticity and self-worth.


•   Closing Of The American Mind (1987), by Allan Bloom

In case anyone is still inquisitive about the nature of the American university, Bloom's book is a must read, and highly relevant for our times. Given the allegations of the Freeh report on the sexual abuse scandal at Pennsylvania State University, we know that it was not only administrators and coaches who permitted sexual abuse to go on for over a decade, but it was also the culture of college athletics at that university that permitted these crimes to occur for so long. But even at universities not dependent upon athletics for a big payday, much is still unknown to the public about the academic culture of the university. Bloom was a traditionalist in terms of the canon of great works and at the time he wrote the book in the 1980s, college literature departments were introducing marginalized writers (i.e., minority, women, and foreign writers) into the canon. Political correctness was also the rage among conservative- or libertarian-minded writers like Bloom, but Bloom was also concerned about the over-commercialization of the university curriculum. He was as much opposed to the existence of computer science majors as the integration of the literature canon. We should note that Bloom, as a teacher of literature, came from a traditional liberal arts background that largely emphasizes a classical (Athenian) view of knowledge for its own sake, so obviously a "practical" education, like in computer science, does not ask questions about "the Good" and so forth, questions which of course were integral to classical Greek philosophy and literature. While a conservative, Bloom has something to teach liberals, conservatives, libertarians and persons of varying political stripes: that we need to closely look at the curriculum and culture of the university to determine whether the kids who come out of them are learning anything, and the fate of the liberal arts education in an age of increasing technological saturation.




•   Red (1974), by King Crimson

Red is a timeless King Crimson, classic and possibly their best album. Unlike 1970s progressive rock cohorts such as Yes and Genesis, King Crimson had a darker edge, although Genesis's The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway matches Crimson's edginess and majestic guitar sprawls. Robert Fripp is a joy to see live (I saw him in Boston back in 1996), though when he is performing with his bandmates, he tends to stay in the background and let the audience focus on them. But he is King Crimson and his stamp on their sound is always present.


•   Goo (1990), by Sonic Youth

Sonic Youth came out of the core of the 1980s New York punk art scene (I've seen them live) with the wall of noise aesthetic of detuned strings. They were one of the more authentic bands that were "alternative" before that word became dirtied in the music media, and Goo showcased the band at its finest.


•   Superunknown (1994), by Soundgarden

Soundgarden came from the 1990s Seattle scene, along with Nirvana and Pearl Jam, but I always thought Chris Cornell was a better singer than Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder. Besides, Cornell didn't seem to have the personal hang-ups of the other two. Superunknown was perhaps the vision of bands like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, for heavy metal that could break through into the mainstream without selling its soul.


•   Music Has The Right To Children (1998), by The Boards of Canada

In the ambient category, we have the Boards of Canada with their signature sampling and tape loops of BBC kids shows and groove-oriented song production. The numbers "Eagle in Your Mind" and "ROYGBIV" are highlights of the album. This music is perfect for late night when you can't get to sleep and have a writing binge where you need background music that won't clog up your concentration.


•   Nude Tempo One (2002), by Miguel Migs

On those sleepless nights where you feel like dancing, Nude Tempo One will put you in motion. This album should be played at least monthly in a dance club that takes itself seriously. "Aziza" is the peak of the album where you dance yourself in a sweat and begin throwing off clothes. The groove-oriented beats show that disco, once modified and given a soul, could become respectable again.




•   Dr. Strangelove (1964), by Stanley Kubrick

Dr. Strangelove is tangentially sci-fi (since it does address the possibility of a nuclear holocaust), although it is more of a satire of the United States' and Soviet Union's military industrial complex.


•   A Boy And His Dog (1975), by L. Q. Jones

Based on a novella by Harlan Ellison, A Boy And His Dog, starring a very young Don Johnson of Miami Vice fame, is a post-apocalyptic tale involving a sex-starved drifter and his telepathic dog, Vic.


•   The Matrix (1999), by Larry and Andrew Wachowski

The Matrix is a more recent post-apocalyptic story with Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne lighting up the screen. For the philosophically minded, the film explores the nature of reality and freedom in a world in which artificial intelligence forcibly constructs human beings' perception of reality.


•   Blade Runner (1982), by Ridley Scott

In Blade Runner, Ridley Scott has what I think is the prototypical 1980s movie (new-wave hairstyles aside) in that period's vision of commercial magnanimity (the larger than life Coca Cola ads in the movie) as well as the tinkering with genetic and reproductive capabilities (e.g., in vitro insemination). The mutants in the film were all produced in laboratories of the Tyrell Corp. A prescient idea was that we would create mechanisms for fighting foreign wars (we have drone technologies today, which have been in the news recently for their discriminate and indiscriminate use) and the genetic replicants or mutants serve this purpose until a group of them become fully human by exhibiting emotion (fear), falling in love, or contemplating their existence. A truly brilliant movie.


•   My Dinner With Andre (1981), by Louis Malle

My Dinner with Andre is a philosophical dialogue between a practical-minded protagonist and his free-spirited antagonist; the movie is definitely engaging. In this day of short attention spans, a film that is mostly a two-sided dialogue is something that would be lost on the viewing public, especially in a movie season where the big screen is filled with gunfire and explosions. Hence, an intellectual feast to be savored.


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About the Author

Harvey E. Whitney, Jr. is a doctoral candidate in history at Florida State University and teaches medieval and modern global history at Howard Community College in Maryland. To learn more, please visit his Web site at http://hewhitney.com/.   (back)


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Published July 30, 2012