Keepin' it Real, but Not Enough

— I enjoyed Mia Fineman's perceptive but careful-not-to-make-too-firm-a-judgment essay on the paintings of John Currin on Slate. I find Currin excruciatingly boring, and technically just OK. Without the funky anatomical distortion (the creepy tiny extremities!), there's just nothing to take in. But do look at the slideshow which features some other decent neo-realist painters. Vincent Desiderio's Sleep (Slide #2) is just amazing, if only as a pointlessly showy and psychologically empty (I guess it is about unconsciousness) display of technique. Wade Schuman's Conversation (#3) has rather more to be said for it, but still strikes me as glib, mannered and flat.

My problem with contemporary figurative painting in general is in the dreadful lack of psychological acuity among the leading painters. I will shout for joy from the mountaintops as soon I see a face that conveys anything like the fierce intelligence of Holbein's Thomas More, the eerily intense placidity of Durer's Durer, or the weary but habituated perceptiveness of Rembrandt's aging Rembrandt. The condition of contemporary figurative painting is a bit like MFA workshop fiction: dazzlingly closely observed and spiritually hollow.

Baby it's Cold Outside, and… So what?

Tim Graham of the NRO Corner get's it right. Take note all you Mid-Atlantic ninnies.

UM…IT'S IOWA. [Tim Graham]
Dumbest moment of the morning came on NPR, when Juan Williams was asked if the around-zero cold would keep Iowans home from the caucuses. This is IOWA, people. They're USED to these temps in the winter. Twenty below zero, that's a factor. But they aren't holding the caucuses outside…

A twenty below Iowans will begin to get firm with you about wearing a hat.

Big Fish, Bullshit

— Galen Strawson calls out the “narrativist orthodoxy” in his review of Jerome Bruner's Making Stories. Strawson argues, and he is right, that we are not “constituted” by the stories of our lives in which we cast ourselves as characters. While having a sense that one's life has gone well may involve seeing it as having had a satisfying narrative arc, the conditions for a satisfying arc are not something we are free to concoct from the abundant matter of imagination.

Bruner never raises the question of whether there is any sense in which one's self-narrative should be accurate or realistic. Those who favour the extreme fictionalist or post-modernist version of the narrative self-creation view don't care about this, both because they don't care about truth and because a fiction isn't open to criticism by comparison with reality (it doesn't matter that there is no Middle Earth). But honesty and realism about self and past must matter. There are innumerable facts about one's character and history that don't depend on one's inventions. One can't found a good life on falsehood.

Strawson's point should lead us to ask what makes a good story a good story. Presumably it has something to do with relating to the world, and to others, in the right sort of way. And the right way to relate is a fact about the world, independent of the stories we tell.

Reason editors with degrees in literature or film eager to praise consumer culture for providing the stuff of narrative self-invention, take note.

[Link via A&L Daily.]

Fargo: Den of Thieves

— Since my window for interest in Iowa-themed posts is now closing, let me just point out that Iowa comes out as the 47th most corrupt state in the union in this study. When I tell people Iowa was a good place to grow up, this sort of thing is part of what I mean. People with a conscience, unlike those shifty bastards up in North Dakota (#2)! But I guess my Saskatchewegian dad had to move to Nebraska (#50) to avoid the relatively malign nature of Iowa public life.

In Defense of the Caucus!

— As an irrationally proud and defensive Iowan, I am annoyed by the headline of the top story on the Slate front page. It says: “The Phantom Pollbooth: Why You'll Never Know who won Iowa.” (The headline over the story itself reads, cryptically, “The Vanishing.”)

The implication here is that there is something wrong with the caucus system, as if there is some one right, especially legitimate, way to choose delegates for a national party convention. There is no poll booth in a caucus, it's just a bunch of people hanging out in a room. And your first preference doesn't necessarily get registered (if your favorite candidate fails to cross a threshold, then you've got to wander over to some other more successful canidate's posse to be counted). And there is no simple constant relationship between the number of people who stand for a candidate at caucus and the number of delegates you finally get.

This all seems to annoy Saletan and Schiller, who apparently think democracy essentially has something to do with adding up raw preferences in order to descry the ding an sich of the general will. They need to get over their journalist's fetishism for polls, and stop thinking democracy is the same thing as an especially big Zogby survey.

We all should know by now that every voting scheme is arbitrary in its own way, and that there's no general will to be expressed. Democracy, if it's worth anything, is only secondarily about counting heads. First, it's about procedures for social choice that diffuse power, that citizens will regard as legitimate, and which contribute to the stable, predictable functioning of the social order. People in Iowa LIKE the caucus, which is a prima facie good reason to also like the caucus. Iowans like getting together with people in their neighborhood, and talking over issues, and standing for their candidates. And there is a perfectly good procedure for deciding the winner of the caucus, and most everyone thinks that's just fine, too. Delegates get selected. So it adequately serves the superficial democratic function. But the caucus is also a community experience that brings Iowans togethers, that provides them with a sense of choosing and governing together in a way much more intimate than the casting of anonymous ballots. And in this way, the caucus serves democracy's deeper purposes very well.

Saletan and Schilller ridiculously compare what promises to be a very close caucus to the 2000 Florida presidential vote count:

Everyone could argue about which ballots should count. But at least there were ballots to look at.

In Iowa, there will be no ballots.

This strikes me as dumb. Given the nature of the Florida debacle, shouldn't it have occured to them that this is a virtue of the caucus?

Anti-Maintenance Man

— In response to my claim that men have not yet figured out how best to be men in the post-feminist world, Kim “Rifleman” DuToit writes:

Actually, we have figured it out, but I'm not so sure women are going to like the answer.

We seem to have preferred to opt out of the whole Western female societal construct. To quote a friend: “Western women are just too high-maintenance.”

Which is why men are getting married much later than before, and why mail-order brides from overseas (ie. from “less-civilized” societies like Asia and Eastern Europe) have become such a growth industry.

It's why “Women's Studies” is an object of derision; why young men have no compunction to scream “Show us your tits!” to total strangers; why men no longer treat women with respect.

If women are going to be just like men, men will treat them like men.

Other women, who prefer to be treated like ladies, will be treated as such.

And if that's too “old-fashioned” for the New Woman or Metrosexual Man, so much the better for the rest of us. They can have each other, and welcome.

Lovely. The problem here is not that Kim is being too “old-fashioned,” its that he's being insufferably vicious.

If demanding equal respect for equal intelligence and competence, for equal ambition and accomplishment, is just too much, “too high maintenance,” for Kim, so much so that he is led to endorse the practice of seeking out “mail-order” brides who will acquiesce in subservience, then he has pretty much demonstrated the utter moral bankruptcy of his conception of masculinity. This strikes me as a confession of weakness at the deepest level. The argument that a woman with ambition, resolve, and a sense of independence is a woman who is trying to be “like a man” is of the same form, and elicits in decent people the same repugnance, as the argument that blacks who take their education seriously are trying to “be white”. It's just sick. The “Western female societal construct” is an enormous triumph of civilization. Kim's inability to admire women in this mold, and to appreciate the way such women have successfully preserved their femininity while moving outside of traditional feminine domains, shows us exactly why his notion of masculinity is something no self-respecting man or woman could accept. Additionally, if screaming “show us your tits” is really Kim's idea of treating women “like a man,” then his notion of the respect men owe to other men is also incredibly troubling.

I think Kim thinks he's being iconoclastic, or charmingly curmudgeonly, or something. This metrosexual thinks he should try being a man, because whatever that is, Kim ain't it. Or he should stop trying, because if he is it, then it ain't worth being.