Archive for the ‘Aesthetics’ Category

That is the question, isn’t it?

It’s a pretty fundamental one.  If you answer no to that one, the rest of your flow chart doesn’t mean much.  At least, not in any way that us alive in this cosmos can register.

Do I believe in an afterlife?  I strongly suspect that there are links with our cosmos/universe that we don’t entirely get.  Does that mean that our souls continue on in a recognizable form, that we ourselves recognize, after death?  I would really like to think so, although of course it seems pretty far fetched at first.  There are some reasons to believe that the universe is not randomly created–intelligent design people aren’t entirely evidenceless; and that leads me to hope that, somehow, our universe is a birthing place for new ‘gods’, that is, souls/creatures which eventually have an existence/life beyond our universe; or which can travel through it and spacetime.  If there is a god/gods, then they obviously want us to do things mostly ourselves.  But we’ve said this a bit before.  And I would go so far as to say that the theologians at work today have come up with some pretty interesting stories, which do engender hope; I am talking partly about John Polkinghorne, and Alister McGrath, and Thomas Torrence.  These latter make a case for a specifically Christian theology, but again, this need not be incompatible with other theologies entirely.

Of course, our current state of scientific knowledge would tell us that indeed life is meaningless; we are manifestations of DNA wanting to reproduce ourselves; we have no more purpose than cancer cells, which mindlessly propagate (and then die) as long as we are in a situation where we are not annihilated entirely.

And so many intelligent people have been, in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, quite cynical as to the ‘meaning of life.’ They point to the billions on the planet, the existence of toil, suffering, filth, pain, loneliness, debility, ageing, corruption, cruelty in the lives of so many.  The internet is full of people copulating; cities are full of horrible buildings; television and movies are full of gore and torture.  Freud was right:  we are bestial, murderous animals.

So why bother?  If we’re, as a doctor friend pointed out, about 15 cents worth of chemicals, why do it?


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A few years ago I would, like many of us, have laughed at the naievete of such a question, and said:  “well, europeans, of course!”  But now, having lived in the low countries for several years, both holland and belgium, and also having lived earlier in england and spain, and spent time in italy and germany, I am getting a pretty good sense of how people in various western european regions eat.

And I can state with confidence that until the early 1990s, europeans ate better than americans, or at least, many europeans did.  American food was fairly monolithic:  hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza, spaghetti, and a bit of chinese food and some mexican thrown in to boot.

But then, the urban food revolution came to north america (both the u.s., and canada, that is), and by the mid-1990s, there was no cuisine that you couldn’t get ahold of in any urban centre or college town.  Thai was cool for a while but quickly became old hat.  Ethiopian, Kazakh, Indonesian, Yemeni, you name it, you could find a restaurant selling it.  And then, people started wanting to do this at home.

First came the garlic and spice revolution.  By the early 90s, people were using whole buds of garlic (i.e., 12 cloves) in their meals.  Through the mid 80s, all the recipies in your mom’s cookbook had the following spices:


-pinch of salt

-pinch of pre-ground pepper, 3 years old.

-1 bay leaf or 1/4 tsp dried oregano, 5 years old minimum.


Remember those days?  Vegetables were boiled until they fell apart under their own weight, (more…)

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So it’s an ongoing project here at the Platonist, to come up with the ground rules for what would ideally become a book, setting out a Grand Unified Theory (if we may), of how to create an ideal economy, politics, and society.  This is essentially an update of Plato’s Republic, moving beyond earlier utopian or dystopian literature and taking into account what we’ve learned in the last few decades, since advances in the social sciences have been tremendous, and very inspiring if you know where to look.  This is especially true  in our advances in the theory of egalitarianism, and the discursive elements of this, since Foucault.  And of course our ‘system’ has to move beyond being a system, since one thing we’ve learned is that imposing systems doesn’t at all work.  What we would suggest in this rewriting of the Republic, would be a series of concrete policies that would be designed to maximize happiness, through existing democratic and legal institutions, and maximize opportunity, for those who would want it, without imposing anything on anyone (since this would never be better than our current system–freedom is key).  In essence, we’d be continuing the current and ongoing explorations in the social sciences, whose goal, we would argue, is to find ways to help us to live better.  To explain what has worked, and why, and what hasn’t, and why, with the aim of furnishing us with wisdom to make the right choices, ones that are of course naturally obvious.  For example, it’s quite obvious now that democracy works better than any true monarchy or one-man rule, for a whole host of reasons.  This was not so obvious 300 years ago.  This is the sort of thing, only using newer discoveries, that we are aiming to highlight here.  Economics, in particular, is a rich field for this, since  the marxist-capitalist conflict of the 20th century arguably blinded most economic thinkers by turning them into partisans, instead of scientists.  Economics has been dominated too much by polemics, and not enough with the business of maximizing happiness and opportunity.  It is still in the hands of the anti-marxist, pro plutocratic elite, and we need to reclaim economics from them –  – real economics, scientific university economics.  The book ‘prosperity without growth’ is part of this new trend.  It is happening.

At any rate, one of the fundamental stumbling blocks to any would-be set of principles for improving the way things work (since surely there are quite a few problems we have yet to address as well as we could if only we worked it through) is the fact that we’re still pretty much hardwired for hierarchy as I have said in another post – i.e., we still carry strong tendencies to act according to pack and troop principles, which got us through our millions of years living as beasts.  These instincts aren’t however often so great for creating an egalitarian, maximum-opportunity society.  Psychologists and anthropologists have now identified a lot of these, but let’s spell them out here, so that we can get them out in the open, and grapple with them as we discuss and shape our economic and political wish list.

1)  The desire to be cool.  This used to be called ‘honor.’   It’s probably our first instinct, once we move beyond toddlerhood, and stays with us until senility.  You want to have the people immediately around you like you, and act positively towards you.  This is because in primate troop society, this meant you were  ‘alpha.’  Everyone fawns over you, does stuff for you, laughs at your jokes.  This translates into personal power.  The Fonz snaps his fingers, and people do stuff for him.  (Jeff Winger in “Community” being an updated version of the same).

2)  The desire to be sexy.   (more…)

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So you’ll have to help me with this one, but I thought that it might be useful to start a list of the things that you yourself should be, and that you should do, in order to find an ideal soul mate.  I wrote in another post on marriage that, for some reason, we keep getting married; and I concluded that the ideal of it seems to be hardwired into our biology, and we find it fulfilling in many fundamental ways:  that is why we consider it to be the ideal.  Not least of these includes the idea that except in exceptional circumstances, kids want their parents to stay together, not just for a while, but for all time; even when parents get divorced when kids are in their 30s, kids get adversely affected, and begin to despair that their own marriages must be somehow doomed.  Even elderly seniors divorcing have serious negative repercussions on younger folk who can’t help but look to their example to see whether it is possible to ‘live happily ever after.’  A recent onion article, in typical parodic fashion, ends up listing the traits of an ideal marriage, and incidentally notes the fact that most of us continue to see the ‘happily ever after’ thing as an ideal.

Of course, in order to live happily ever after, you need to find a soul mate first:  it’s no fun to live happily ever after with someone who is only sort of suited to you:  the ideal of course is to be with someone so in tune with you, that you can’t imagine being not around them for more than a few hours here and there.

And, as any councillor or psychologist will tell you these days, the main thing that determines whether or not you find a soul mate is you.  You’re almost entirely in charge of your destiny there.  Yes, it may be hard to meet people in certain situations, but, if you were doing things differently, you would find them, and relatively quickly.  So how do you do it?  Let’s try making a list and see what we come up with.

1)  You have to believe in love, as the horrendous autotuned song goes.  I.e., you have to be willing to have faith, and trust, and not be essentially cynical about relationships and marriages.  You have to believe that it is possible for people to live happily ever after.  If you’ve convinced yourself that marriages, relationships, etc are doomed, and that all members of the opposite sex are mercenary, lying, cheating scum, well, guess what?  However, there are at least a third of people out there who manage to live life in stable, healthy, happy marriages, and a decent number of these folks are eternally in love, and would vastly prefer the company of their partner to anyone else, to death do them part.  So yes, it’s entirely possible, and so, if you want it, you gotta believe in it first. (more…)

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There are  quite a few ways in which one could define the term  “Environment,” but right now I’d like to talk a bit about kids’ physical surroundings.  Clearly, you need a nurturing household, and a happy, stable family life, with loving parents and access to enriching activities and a good education in order to have an optimized upbringing.  But what role does physical environment play in producing an ideal childhood, and thus, hopefully, an ideal adult?

First, I will come down hard on the side of nature.  I believe that raising a child in an urban setting is tantamount to raising a chicken in a factory.  Urban parents have to work extra hard to give their children anything like an enriching environment, and unless they are rich and have regular access to horse stables or a vacation home in the suburbs, or else outdoor enthusiasts who bring the kids to natural parks every weekend, the main result is that urban kids grow up with the stultifying sense that there are always four walls present.  Always.  Every direction that an urban kid turns, she or he sees brick walls, cement walls, highway overpasses, and other built environments.  In a city, one is very seldom more than 100 feet from a wall, in fact.  Walls, walls, walls.  Not good symbolically, and not good psychically.

You see, we have been evolving for millions of years, our own species for a hundred or two hundred thousand years, outside.  Nary a wall in sight.  And for the past several thousand years, our ancestors have spent most of their time farming (a few of them hunting), which means most of their time has been spent outside, in wide open natural surroundings.  Due to this extremely long genetic history, we as individuals come pre-programmed to like certain things:

-Green valleys.  Why?  When primitive humans came into a green valley, this told them that there was plenty of water, game, fruit, nuts, berries, and the other things which sustain life.   Coming into a brown, sterile landscape always spelled wariness, and brought with it the very real danger of starvation.  Urban environments are like desert wastes (which people only appreciate now because they know they will not run out of water, food, etc), and trigger an innate uneasiness, linked to this very strong instinct. (more…)

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Do we have any right to complain about the prices of things?  Is there anything we can do about them?  Does it make economic sense to complain, or are they truly fixed by some untouchable economic laws that are beyond our poor powers of comprehension?  In short, do we just have to sit down and take it, when someone asks us to pay $4.00 for a gallon of gas, $3.50 for a half-gallon of orange juice, or $2.00 for a little carton of yoghurt?  I mean, does yoghurt really cost that much?  Do oranges cost that much?

If you talk too loud about the price of things these days, there will always be some glasses-wearing, brainy-smurf-esque economist dude who begins lecturing you in a nasal voice about how prices are set by supply and demand, and that the prices of most things are just, because the market determines them.  If you force companies to lower prices, they will not make enough profit to make production worthwhile, and they will invest their money and efforts into making something which is more profitable.  So, in short, the free-market economists have straight-jacketed us with their current ideology, which holds that any “messing with the market” puts us in imminent danger of world economic collapse.

In many ways, however, this laissez-faire extremeism has more than proven itself to be quite flawed.  It was this type of thinking which led Alan Greenspan and his libertarian buddies to attempt to do away with federal regulation of the banking system, which directly led to the 2008 economic crash, which has since that time been causing misery for the majority of people on the planet.  The fact is, as most economists acknowledge, the economy cannot exist without a strong framework of regulation.  Without regulation, as any economist knows, one company would soon eat up all the others:  coke would eat pepsi, Wal-Mart would eat K-Mart, etc.  It’s a very basic law of economics.  Also, without regulation by the federal reserve and other overseers, economic booms and busts would be far far wilder than they are today – it would be like the early 20th century over again, and we’d have huge 1920s-style booms, followed by gigantic, 1930s-style busts.

So, the point is, the “free market” theory of prices is not necessarily entirely correct.  Prices are probably open to much more manipulation than we suspect.  In other words, we could all be paying much lower prices for many basic commodities, and the companies in question would still be making plenty of profit to make it worth their while.  For many basic products, we are clearly being shafted.   Here are a few examples that I have noticed:

1)  At your local Indian grocery store, you can buy a gigantic bag of peppercorns, a cheerios-box sized package, for like $4.00.  If you go to your local big-chain grocery store, you will find a tiny jar of Mc Cormick peppercorns, one pathetic pepper-shaker full, for $4.00.  It’s as though peppercorns were worth their weight in silver.  What gives?  Does it really cost McCormick 20x more money to make and package peppercorns than it takes for those Indian dudes to provide you with peppercorns? (more…)

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Why yes, yes they are.

I was at a poetry reading by a “famous” (in the poetry world) Irish poet named Paul Muldoon, whose most famous poem’s refrain is something like “with a rinky-tink dinky-tink link link,” or something like that.  For such work, Muldoon has won a Pulitzer prize in poetry, which to my mind says something about the state of the arts at this point, but we’ll get to that in a moment.  Inevitably, perhaps, during the question and answer period one of the undergrads in the audience asked Mr. Muldoon:

“Sir, do you believe that song lyrics are poetry?”

And Mr. Muldoon said:  “Well, no, son.  Not really.”

And I wanted this supposedly world-famous, ultra-talented spokesman for modern poetry in the world to explain for us, why, indeed, this was not so.  All that he could manage, however, was something along the lines of, “Well, poetry is different; it’s more complex, and it often has forms which are not compatible with simple song lyrics.” (more…)

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