All The More Reason

…am I?
March 31, 2007, 2:52 pm
Filed under: Philosophy

Here is a somewhat uninteresting article on the nature of consciousness. I link to it in large part to draw attention to the dearth of pieces that discuss this subject in attractive terms (sometimes autobiographies do a great job). On consciousness, Broks says:

It matters more than anything. Of course it does. Yet the fact of its mattering so much goes mostly unremarked by scientists and philosophers of mind.

Really? It matters more than my subconscious that controls my respiratory and digestive functions? Later on, Broks waxes philosophic about the nature of consciousness and whether or not we’re the only ones invited to the party.

One day I’ll be dead. It’s an oddly exhilarating thought. Something unimaginable—nothingness—awaits us all. I have a hunch that getting an imaginative purchase on mental nothingness would help us also grasp the “somethingness” of sentience. What else was conscious in that summer’s evening scene? The tree? No. The bugs? I doubt it. The cat? Who knows?

Firstly, I don’t see how nothingness is unimaginable. I was “nothing” for at least a good four hours last night while asleep. Perhaps it wasn’t absolute nothingness, but just as silence is not absolute silence, it is still a pretty good approximation of its platonic ideal. There is an interesting idea here though, unfortunately unnoticed by the author. Is the idea of consciousness something binary, such as an elevator reaching a floor, or is it a linear progression from near–zero consciousness to high–levels of consciousness? Pursuing the elevator analogy, it would be more like simply climbing a hill to see farther. For example, according to Broks a tree is decidedly not conscious. And yet, many of its actions are similar to ours, albeit they take much longer to realise. If it is sunny, the leaves turn, and if it rains, the leaves turn again to catch the rainfall. (I don’t know the specifics of how the process happens, or how much turning the leaves in fact do. However, we can say with certainty that there are reactions based on the elements.) Well on a warm sunny day, people are far more likely to languish around outside, and to reveal more of their skin to the sun. Does the fact that we can notice this, and that trees cannot, mean that consciousness is a decidedly separate thing and not simply a more elaborate way of existing?

In the piece Broks does make reference to the awesome Pat Martino. He is a guitarist that lost all his memory and had to relearn how to play the guitar. You can listen to him here.

Jonathan Smith


Poetic Justice
March 29, 2007, 5:49 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

What is translation?’ asked Vladimir Nabokov: ‘…On a platter/ A poet’s pale and glaring head/A parrot’s screech, a monkey’s chatter/And profanation of the dead.

Nabokov’s poetic consideration of this question was essentially defensive. His two stanzas of artful self-justification, On Translating Eugene Onekin, were jabs at the jaw of critics who had denounced his idiosyncratic, even ‘profane’, English translation of Pushkin’s verse-novel.

As a Russian author émigré and multi-linguist, Nabokov had both personal and professional reasons for seeking the essence of translation, but anyone who has ever attempted to translate anything will have addressed the problem, as they anxiously paw at a dictionary in search of le mot juste.

As it happens, le mot juste, is a good example of the translator’s folly in action. The most recognisable English rendering of this shop-soiled phrase would be ‘the correct word’, ‘the precise word’, or, if you’re feeling less adventurous, plain-old ‘the right word’. But even though each of these versions gets the message across, they are all monochrome facsimiles of the original French phrase, which expresses a more profound idea. The word juste is, in French, entwined with notions of justice and fairness; by searching for le mot juste, one is therefore endeavouring literally to ‘do justice’ to the language in which one is working.

Occasionally, one comes across a foreign term that appears ‘untranslatable’. By this, one usually means that it is difficult to do justice to it with a single word from one’s native tongue. The translation of the Portuguese word saudade as ‘sorrowful longing’, may not furrow too many brows, but articulately conveying the fact that this expression has a positive connotation takes rather more linguistic élan.

Tim King, Prospect Magazine’s excellent French political analyst, was recently forced to suck a thoughtful tooth as he tried to convey the meaning of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s florid French to the readers of his blog:

”I think a foreigner who wants to adopt French nationality begins to become truly French only when the bones of his parents dissolve into the earth of France,” he told me last week. “It’s at that moment that one begins to belong to the nation charnellement.”(A word for which I can’t find a quick equivalent – carnally doesn’t work, though it can do in other circumstances, viscerally, perhaps, intimately not really). Jean-Marie Le Pen talks in images, which I have to say makes talking to him vivid, alive and sometimes very funny. ‘

To put the exact English translation of charnellement (an adverb linked to the idea of a charnel house- an institution no longer, sorry, a la mode) in the mouth of Le Pen would be to make him sound long-winded and inarticulate, which, for all his vices, would be an unjust representation of his character. Translation, as this example shows, is therefore neither wholly art nor science: it combines factual rigour with an appreciation of a language’s aesthetic.

The translation of poetry poses an even greater challenge because the translator is restricted by form. For Nabokov, the safe transport of his delicate poetic cargo could only be assured by removing it from the distorting constraints of Pushkin’s original meter. Unlike previous translators of the piece, Nabokov privileged exactness at the expense of Eugene Onegin‘s melodic sense. Walter Arndt’s rendering of the following stanza, for example:

Winter…the peasant, feeling festive,
Breaks a fresh fairway with his sleigh,
Snow underfoot, his nag is restive
And, barely trotting, plods his way.

Becomes, in Nabokov’s literal, ‘free’ verse:

Winter! The peasant, rejoicing,
Breaks a new track with his sledge;
His poor horse, sniffing the snow,
Attempting a trot, plods through it.

Arndt gives us a sense of the undulations that a Russian reader would recognise, but he must resort to confection to achieve his effect. Is the reader’s gain greater if he knows that the peasant’s horse ‘restiveness’ is a result of his sniffing of the snow? ‘The drudge or the rhymester’, Nabokov wrote, ‘has substituted easy platitudes for the breathtaking intricacies of the text‘.

In justifying his own work, Nabokov calls on Pushkin for posthumous absolution of his ‘honest roadside prose/All thorn, but cousin to your rose.’ But a thorn by any other name still pricks our feet. The ‘metropolitan critic’ Edmund Wilson, himself a scholar of Pushkin (and until the publication of his critique in the New York Review of Books, a friend of Nabokov) scorned this approach for producing ‘a bald and awkward language which has nothing in common with Pushkin or with the usual writing of Nabokov.’ Neither honesty, then, nor poetic licence, can altogether prevent a linguistic miscarriage of justice. On the journey from one tongue to another, it seems that something is always lost in translation.

March 27, 2007, 2:00 am
Filed under: French Politics

Here’s a French debate talk show that airs once a week (the show claims to be a debate of both sides on an issue, but I suspect some readers of this blog would find the views oscillate more between centre and right rather than left and right). I find that it is a fascinating study of classic French faces and hand gestures. For example, 46 seconds in, Nicolas Domenach lets out a sigh that could blow out a church candle a mile away. All three speakers, including the moderator Victor Robert, use quite a few open hand palm to themselves movements as gesticulations.

One thing of interest in the debate is the finger counting of Eric Zemmour. It is said that French people count starting with the thumb, then the forefinger, the middle finger, the ring and finally the pinky (to see a classic thumb starter count click here and watch Tariq Ramadan at 5:04). I say supposedly, because when I was in France I didn’t make a real point of seeing how accurate that was wherever I went. Having said that, I did notice that sometimes waiters in Paris misunderstood me when I would make a sign for two and there would be a hesitation of whether or not I meant two or three (I didn’t mind the extra drink if it came round). Now, what’s of interest is how at 10:10 Zemmour makes an emphasis of saying “Deuxièmement” and it’s clear that he has both forefinger and middle finger out. This indicates that he’s using an American (and possible British, I don’t know) way of counting on his fingers. And yet, not one minute later, at 10:59, one can see him clearly counting in a classic French manner, starting with the thumb.

I mention this because the subject of the debate right after that deals with capitalism and its effect on French identity. I wouldn’t know whether or not Americans or Australians or anyone else for that matter oscillate the way they count on their fingers. I also recognise that one example does not make a case. I suspect though that France experiences more of a pressure on its culture from the States than vice versa. The effect of seeing the switch from one manner of counting to the other is quite relevant and revealing considering the subject matter.

Jonathan Smith

The Appearance of Piety is really as bad as Piety itself
March 24, 2007, 11:33 pm
Filed under: French Presidential Elections

France’s elections this time round will have some electors voting electronically. Here’s one criticism of it.

“Le système de vote actuel a été conçu pour que quiconque, même le plus ignorant, puisse se forger l’intime conviction que le vote s’est déroulé honnêtement, dit Roberto Di Cosmo, chercheur au laboratoire Preuves, programmes et systèmes (CNRS, université Paris-VII). Lorsque le vote se fait par voie électronique, est-il possible de se forger, seul, la même conviction ? La réponse est non : il faut recourir à l’expert, à l’argument d’autorité.”

The United States had electronic ballots in the 2000 and 2004 elections, and they didn’t exactly go off without a hitch either. Now, clearly one can rig an election with paper. However, I would argue that it would be easier to find out that an election was rigged if it were done on paper. Furthermore, there doesn’t have to be anything necessarily sinister going on here. Pure incompetence could be enough to blow some of the ballots that are done electronically. I hardly need mention that conspiracy theorists would have a field day if the first round results were close and certain areas in the electronic ballots were different than expected.

And yet Roberto Di Cosmo’s point, which I hadn’t initially thought of, goes to a deeper problem with the introduction of electronic ballots. It speaks to the increasing trust one must have in the expertise of select individuals. To put it another way, any 1000 Frenchmen picked at random could be capable of counting the paper ballots of the first round. It’s arguable that there are even 1000 Frenchmen in total that will be capable of not only understanding the software for this machine, but to ensure that the ballots are properly counted. This is a gigantic shift in the balance of power, and not necessarily for the better.

Finally, there’s an aesthetic component of voting that should not be completely neglected either. Making a vote feel more like a bank transaction does commercialise the feeling of voting. I don’t want something that was such a struggle to gain as a right in the first place to feel like I’m withdrawing money for pints.

There’s a petition going on here for those that feel that electronic voting is not yet suitable for presidential elections.

Jonathan Smith

Airing Dirty French Laundry
March 20, 2007, 9:33 pm
Filed under: French Presidential Elections

This is interesting reading.


Unilateral Thinking
March 15, 2007, 5:54 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

One cannot help but sympathise with members of the government who have the feeling of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In 1997, even Tony Blair might have thought it incredible that his party would still be in government ten years hence, at a time when, unluckily enough, the renewal of Britain’s nuclear weapons system needed to be considered.

If the Tony Blair of ten years ago would have found the present scenario improbable, one can only imagine what the Tony Blair of twenty five years ago might have made of the decision that his government would finally arrive at. Might he have condemned the renewal of these ‘nuclear boomerangs’ and furthermore insisted that the government use ‘unilateral steps [to] secure multilateral solutions on the international level.’? He might well have: after all, these are the words of the Labour Party manifesto on which he ran for election in 1983. A member of CND, as he was at the time, would be unlikely to resile from these positions.

Not unreasonably, the weather-beaten Tony Blair of today would point out to his callow counterpart that we now live in very different times. The rhetoric of 1983 no longer arrests us in the way it did when mutually assured destruction was a very real possibility, rather than a horrific curiosity gawped at by students of the Cold War. It is true that in a multi-polar world the potential threats to national security are less predictable. The question one needs to ask though is this: are nuclear weapons the best way – both practically and ethically – of insuring against future risk of attack?

The government cites ‘state-sponsored nuclear terrorism’ as one of the new threats that could materialise within the lifespan of the upgraded Trident missiles. Having the capacity to eradicate a state would, it is argued, deter that state from supplying terrorists with the means to wipe London, New York or Tel Aviv from the map. This, of course, assumes that a return address would be possible to discern with enough certainty to sentence thousands, if not millions, of its addressees to death. Who would we trust enough to make this call? Who would trust their self enough to make it? Who, furthermore, would wish to have such a responsibility at the tip of his finger when the recipients of your payload might be, let us say, the helpless non-citizens of a Shi’ite theocracy which rather presumptuously insists that ‘its’ ummah could, and would readily, ‘absorb’ any such attack? Who could entertain facilitating the ‘martyrdom’ of a people who, until the white light of the blast had blinded them, would be unaware that they had auditioned for such a role?

The other ‘known unknowns’ are rather more familiar, but no more comforting for it. We know that there are states who may directly threaten us in the future. We don’t know exactly who they are at present, although it doesn’t take too much imagination to figure out which countries with either nuclear capabilities or nuclear aspirations our deterrent might seek, one day, to deter. However counter-intuitive it may sound, psychopathic regimes may well be susceptible to the nuances of ‘game theory’; irrational systems do not necessarily act irrationally. For as long as there are countries with nuclear weapons, it is wise to assume that arming ourselves with systems like Trident will reduce any risk of attack from states that value their own survival.

Prudent as it may be for the government to renew Trident on the basis that it is taking out ‘insurance’ against the possibility of unknown future threats, it must not overlook the ultimate goal of total, global disarmament. In the halcyon, ‘bi-polar’ days of the Cold War, when Trident’s missiles were targeted in dreadful symmetry at a known target, the balance of terror was readily apparent and, therefore, containable. This was a house fire that could be kept under control. But its dying embers now threaten to spit themselves into the scrub. If Iran goes nuclear, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and others will surely follow, and we should not be so naïve as to think that we can shield ourselves from the ensuing inferno. Or holocaust.

In 2010, the next round of Nuclear Non-Proliferation talks will take place. Delaying a decision on Trident until then would make little material difference to the effectiveness of the British nuclear deterrent, but it would make a huge difference to the international perception of this country’s good faith. How could any government minister seriously engage in these talks in the knowledge that the cheques for a weapons system that will last until 2050 have already been signed? Established nuclear powers must be willing to take the moral high ground in facing down immoral regimes. When Iran invokes the rhetoric of tu quoque to justify its nuclear ambitions, what will our response be? Until we abandon our policy of defensive genocide, we will continue to fight fire with fire.

Michael P

Choice of Public Schools
March 14, 2007, 5:12 pm
Filed under: Education

Here’s a really interesting article in LeMonde concerning La Carte Scolaire. It’s called “Le taboo de la carte scolaire” which is really a misnomer for an article that then goes on to describe in great detail the positions taken by various politicians on the subject matter. The term Carte Scolaire translates to the act of public school zoning (is there another term in English?). It would appear that of the main candidates for the presidential election, only Bayrou is somewhat in favour of maintaining these zone enforcements. The idea behind them is that your local mayor’s office decides which school your child should go to based on where he lives.

The idea behind these zoning laws was originally to ensure that parents didn’t self–segregate their children. It would appear though that with time the Carte Scolaire is now effectively doing just that. Well, if that is true, then it follows that certain areas of France and within towns are self–segregating as well. In other words, if at one time you had people of different nationalities living in the same area, then the Carte Scolaire would ensure that their children ended up going to the same school. If in the meanwhile, these areas themselves have separated into little pockets of communitarinism lite, then the Carte Scolaire is now ensuring that their children go to school without mixing as much with children of other backgrounds. If there is a taboo in that article on this subject, it is most likely that.

Jonathan Smith