Sunday, November 28, 2010

Are We There Yet?

What are those ants doing?  I never get tired of looking at them.

When I was making art, I was fascinated by metonymy, a figure of speech that substitutes one word for another word that it's closely associated with.  Over time, the crown comes to stand for the king.

It is metonymy that gives documentary film and other forms of sympathetic magic their power over us.  And it is metonymy that connects the unseen and unseeable theoretical concepts of science to their manifestations in the realm of the senses.

In the physical world, films and photographs are instantly metonymic.  The weaver ants in the header stand for actual ants in a completely realistic and convincing way.  The ants in the header may be suspended in time and space, immutable, undying, but, to our minds, they are real.  And they are doing a real ant thing, a thing they were caught in the act of doing by the biologist who snapped their picture and generously gave us permission to use it here.  They will continue to do that one ant thing and nothing else as long as the photograph lasts.  They will not sting us to move us off their trail, they will not turn around and head in the opposite direction, and the major worker will not put the minor worker down.  They will move forward together, always tending toward some place outside the frame of the photograph, but never getting there. 

Now the scientist who took the picture of these weaver ants, Bert Hölldobler, knows as much about ants as anyone alive, and he tells us that what is literally going on in that picture is an example of the division of labor.  What Professor Hölldobler's photograph shows is a major worker carrying a minor worker "to a place where the minor worker is needed for special work, such as attending honeydew-secreting homoopterans or nursing small larvae."

That's the observable fact of the picture.  The denotative meaning of it.  But we do not live by metonymy alone.

Beyond metonymy, there is metaphor, a figure of speech in which a word that literally denotes one thing or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness.  As metaphor, the picture of our ants points to something beyond itself.  It refers to other things that it is like.  And, as a picture that is a metaphor for something else, the more things it refers to, the better it is.

As metaphor, Professor Hölldobler's weaver ants are amazingly polyreferential.

Saturday, November 27, 2010


I just got home from the experience of 5 hours of small-town American healthcare, watching my wife work her way through nurse practitioners, X-ray techs, X-rays and cat scans after her car was hit from the rear by an uninsured driver.

When we first moved to this little town, a neighbor recommended the clinic we go to. It's run by a religious organization. All of the doctors are missionaries who base here but travel to the underdeveloped world to heal the sick and spread the word of the Lord.

In the waiting rooms I sat in yesterday, I saw loops of Doctor Gupta explaining lung cancer, Wolf Blitzer reporting on the Iranian riots, and a painting of Jesus, guiding the hand of a surgeon. I thought the painting was the most interesting. I couldn't help imagining different versions of it and variations on its theme.

Maybe we could add Moses and Mohammed to the painting. Show Jesus and the other prophets -- peace be unto them -- jostling one another and arguing about how to guide the doctor's hand.

Or, we could show them guiding other hands. The bombadier's hand as he drops bombs on Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima or Dresden. Or the executioner's hand as he tightens a noose, lights a fire or slits a throat. How about a guiding hand at the gas chambers and ovens?

It must be comforting to believe that every slip of the knife is God's will.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Outside The Echo Chamber

Thanksgiving is a good time to reflect on who we are, where we came from and where we're going.

Adam Goodheart has a Homer Winslow cartoon up in the New York Times opinion pages today, courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.  The cartoon was published in Harper's Weekly in 1860.

Winslow Homer, Thanksgiving Day, 1860, The Two Great Classes of Society, from Harper’s Weekly, December 1, 1860

I was struck by Goodheart's observation that "there is precious little celebration in Homer’s tribute to the national holiday, let alone flattery of well-heeled Harper’s readers."

Contrast that with Ted Koppel's Olbermann, O'Reilly and the death of real news at the Washington Post.  Koppel, commenting on the echo chamber phenomenon so familiar to anyone who spends time in the blogosphere, notices that "we live now in a cable news universe that celebrates the opinions of Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly - individuals who hold up the twin pillars of political partisanship and who are encouraged to do so by their parent organizations because their brand of analysis and commentary is highly profitable."

This analysis and commentary drowns television viewers in a flood of opinions designed to confirm their own biases.  Commentators like Olbermann and O'Reilly "show us the world not as it is, but as partisans (and loyal viewers) at either end of the political spectrum would like it to be. This is to journalism what Bernie Madoff was to investment: He told his customers what they wanted to hear, and by the time they learned the truth, their money was gone."

Ironically, the Koppel piece at the Post is so cluttered with and buried by on-line ads and scripts, including an ad aimed at investors with at least a $500,000 portfolio, that it's practically unreadable.  If it didn't confirm my own biases, I wouldn't mention it.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Can Torquemada Be Far Behind?

“Not everyone who thinks they need an exorcism actually does need one,” Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., told the New York Times today. “It’s only used in those cases where the Devil is involved in an extraordinary sort of way in terms of actually being in possession of the person."

Bishop Paprocki organized a conference this week to help priests and bishops meet the growing demand for exorcisms. 

Some observors say the renewed interest in exorcism makes sense in light of Pope Benedict XVI's push to return the Church to traditional rituals and practices.
A few of the classic signs of possession by a demon, Bishop Paprocki said, include speaking in a language the person has never learned; extraordinary shows of strength; a sudden aversion to spiritual things like holy water or the name of God; and severe sleeplessness, lack of appetite and cutting, scratching and biting the skin.

Still, according to Vatican guidelines issued in 1999 -- which updated Rituale Romanum guidelines dating back to 1614 -- a person who claims to be possessed should be evaluated by doctors to rule out a mental or physical illness. 

If science can't explain the patient's behavior, the Church falls back on the theory of Demonic Possession.

Possession is rare, Bishop Paprocki said, "but we have to be prepared."
Mirabile dictu.

Coincidentally, the Rituale Romanum guidelines of 1614 were formulated at about the time the Inquisition was condemning Galileo for endorsing Copernicus' heretical proposition that the Sun is the center of the universe.

After the Second World War, the Yale philosopher, F.S.C. Northrop, set out in The Logic Of The Sciences And The Humanities to provide a scientific basis for solving problems of value, hoping to "bring scientific verification and attendant human agreement into the present demoralized world of ideological humanistic controversy."

Galileo's discovery of the basic and novel concepts of modern physics "began with an inescapable sense of a problem left by the Aristotelean physics" -- projectiles such as shells shot from cannons didn't move the way they should if Aristotle's physics were true -- and ended by overturning "the whole of the Aristotelean physics," Northrop wrote.  And, since "there is not a major concept in Aristotle's metaphysics which does not appear in his physics, this change has the additional consequence of requiring the rejection of the Aristotelean philosophy and its attendant medieval Thomistic theology."

In other words, the Church has been guided by a view of man and nature that has been known to be false for hundreds of years.

But the Church is not alone in failing to connect its values to what modern science has revealed about man and the world he lives in. 

I can't think of a single normative theory that derives its authority from science.  Is that because science cannot define what it means to be human?  Is it because science is unable to say what a human being living in the United States of America in 2010 needs for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?

I don't think so.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Annals Of The Waterboard (An Opera) February 13, 2010

2:00 AM. Bush meets Cheney in the hallway of a cell block. Bush is carrying a surfboard. Marine guards snap to attention as Bush approaches.

Cheney: What the hell is that?

Bush: My surfboard.

Cheney: What an asshole. I said we were waterboarding tonight.

Bush: Whoa! You can't call POTUS an asshole. (To the Marines in the hall.) Grab hold of him. (Bush throws the surfboard on the floor.) Hold him down on that!

Cheney: Goddam it, George, stop fucking around.

Bush: Somebody get me some water and a rag.

Tutti cantano insieme:

The Marines: Sir! Aye, Aye! Sir!

Cheney: Don't board me, George!

Bush: Tube City! Damn! Turn him over now!

Sacrifice I The Sugar

When I knew him, it was Michael Tracy's intention to make the vestiges of ancient signs visible in the modern world.


Sacrifice I Burning

Maundy Thursday Circa 1975

Good Friday Circa 1975

Easter Sunday Circa 1975

Le Monde Circa 1975

Michael (Crossed Out)

The Girl 2008

Sacrifice I

Michael Out Of Egypt June 21, 2008

Zyema's Garden June 3, 2007

Hello Kitty Admires The Baby Jesus March 8, 2005

My daughter hasn't quite got the hang of religion yet.  She wanted a nativity scene, and we got her one from Saint Vincent DePaul. She called it her Jesus set, and mixed in Hello Kitty and farm and jungle animals. I figure the Mary I grew up with wouldn't mind that much.

Jasmine March 14, 2005

My Night Blooming Jasmine has started to bloom already. I have two big plants in pots in my sun room. I bring them inside in the Fall and put them back out on the porch in the Summer. They've never bloomed this early before. It's amazing to sit in my sun room in the evening, look out at the moonlit snow and smell Jasmine. I just have one little cluster of about 10 flowers on one plant, which is lucky, since my wife hates the smell. But I grew up with it. One whiff transports me back to hot summer nights in Galveston, Texas, reminds me of the warm waters of the Gulf Of Mexico, brings back the heavy scent of the perfume on the necks of the Mexican girls I held in the back seat of my old man's Pontiac. I worry about what kinds of smells my young daughter is going to remember from her childhood, growing up in Wisconsin. Wood fires maybe. Other Winter smells. But Jasmine, too, come to think of it. She loves it. She tears off one flower every night and takes it to her room.

Deformed Monarch Butterfly March 9, 2005

Princess Zyema January 3, 2005

Princes Zyema Velvet Kitten sits on my lap, purring, and kneads my stomach while I consider this post. She slips behind me on the chair, rubbing her face against my back. This is my daughter's cat, rescued from the Humane Society. She's too young to hunt anything except her little, rabbit-fur mice. She leaps into the air, back arched, tail curved, and comes down on them with all four feet. For some reason, she likes to drop them in her water bowl. There are no mice in the garden now. Everything is under 6 inches of snow.  Where are the mice?  I picture them in their little burrows, sitting in rocking chairs, knitting, sipping tea or smoking pipes. They have no idea what awful deaths await them in the spring.