Friday, October 09, 2015

reflections on a car accident

So I’m walking Adam to school, around 9 a.m. We approach the corner of Lincoln and Arizona. On one side of that corner is a popular pre-school. At this time in the morning, streams of strollers, parents and maids are moving towards it. On Lincoln, a white car decides (or rather the driver decides – but from our position on the sidewalk, the cars are the masters of the street) that he can make the light – which had clearly turned red – if he pumpe the gas. He pumped the gas and promptly collided with an SUV which was turning onto Arizona. It was a big crash.
As is always the case when cars crash, everybody around froze and watched. I imagine everybody around, like me, had a breathless moment, too. Was somebody hurt? Was somebody killed?
It seems that the answer is no. Slowly the pilgrims to the school resumed their walking, and Adam and I resumed ours.
So, what was the purpose of that potential destruction of human life and the mechanical damage that I’d assess, by eye, as well over 5 thousand dollars?
The purpose was to gain a full two minutes. Stopping at the red light, the white car would have had to wait.
There’s an article in this week’s LRB about a movement in philosophy called “effective altruism.” Inspired by Peter Singer, this movement seeks to direct philanthropy to the most effective causes for ameliorating misery. Although it might sound good in this neo-liberal era, where the gains of democratic socialism have been so pushed back that private philanthropy is now considered the only response to the terrible conditions of the “poor” – thus aggrandizing the power of the wealthiest, of course – still, the whole enterprise, if the explanation in the review is accurate, sounds completely null.
Interestingly, one of the way these new “philanthropists” decide what cause to contribute to is by comparing quality of life measurements. If the quality of life of , say, a blind person is objectively measured and shown to be less than a person with AIDS, then you give to causes to cure blindness. The idea that blindness and AIDS might be connected, might in fact be part of a system of public health or its neglect, doesn’t have a place in this philosophy. Each misery is considered in royal isolation.
However, if one were to do this kind of calculus, surely the misery caused by car wreck – 1.24 million deaths worldwide from car wreck were recorded in 2010, not to speak of the injuries – would surely rank up there. Before one contributed to gun control laws or things of this sort, one should, by the efficient altruism theorem, contribute to suppressing the automobile.
Nobody in reality is going to suppress the automobile. The last public intellectual to seriously consider this was George Orwell, who did think that automobiles by law shouldn’t go more than 30 miles per hour.
In an article in Le travail humain, Anticipation visuelle de collisions en situations simulées: effets de l'expérience de la conduit, C. Berthelon et al. coin some truly Delilo-esque terms to speak of the behavioral situation of the driver in a car. One I love is the “optical flow field”.
“Human observers,” according to the article, “perceive the direction of their displacement relative to some such global flow with a precision that is sufficient to control locomotion in an important spectrum of trajectories and environments.”
Indeed. As we all know, human evolution gave us bodies that could move, by our own locomotion, in bursts of speed up to 27.78 miles per hour. That peak speed was greater than the speed of a chariot or of most vessels in the ancient world.  The peak speed of a tireme, for instance, was about 8 knots, or 9 miles per hour. Of course, humans can’t maintain their peak speed, so the chariot and the tireme were useful. But, for the most part of human natural history, legs were the speediest instruments humans possessed. And, as one would expect, that speed keyed our human reaction time. Our natural global optical flow was such that other flows – the flow of a charging bull, or the flow of a river in flood – often confused us. The literature on bear attacks is a good source for our natural human reaction time to threatening phenomenon in the optical flow. It doesn’t bode well for natural human reaction time to threatening phenomena like 4 thousand pounds of metal moving at 60 miles per hour. Freezing and  racing away are both bad things to do in a car.
Our first mass exposure to speeds that far exceeded those attained by our legs occurred on railroad trains. Schivelbusch’s marvelous little book, The Railway Journey, culls accounts of the first passengers on railroads and their vertiginous experience of a very different regime of velocity.
“The average traveling speed of the early railways in England is 20 to 30 miles an hour, which is roughly three times the speed previously achived by stagecoaches. Thus, any given distance is covered in oen third of the customary time: temporally, that distance shrinks to one-third of its former length.”

Shrinkage, then as now, was the way this kind of transportation  velocity was conceived. It is a rhetoric that penetrates Alice in wonderland, where Carroll has great fun with Alice figuring out the game of shrinking and growing as she drinks the potion that diminishes her to ten inches high, so that she can fit through the door she finds to get into a garden, and eats a cake, to make herself get bigger, or if necessary, smaller. This was precisely the game that was being played by geographers at the time in the popular quarterlies. Schivelbusch finds, for instance, this quotation from a British magazine that irresistably suggests Alice.

“For instance, supposing that railroads, even at our present simmering rate of traveling, were to be suddenly established all over england, the whole population of the country would, speaking metaphorically, at once advance en masse, and place their chairs nearer to the fireside of their metropolis by two thirds…”

Magically, though, the objects in the optical flux would remain the same size as ever. In this way, shrinking isn’t really shrinking, even though it is.

The next great leap in shrinking and not shrinking was, of course, the automobile. The passengers didn’t direct the railroad car, they just sat in it. Now they were placed to direct a weighty object going at speeds of up to 100 miles per hour.

Greg Siegel, in a Foucauldian article entitled The Accident Is Uncontainable/The Accident Must Be Contained: High-Speed Cinematography and the Development of Scientific Crash Testing, claims that World War II marks a difference between two administrative responses to car crashes. In the first period, the emphasis was on reducing car accidents to the lowest possible number. In the second period, after WWII – and as the strategy of nuclear war made popular the idea that the attainment of state objectives that might cost millions of lives in a brief period of time – the emphasis shifted to administering the damage –or as Siegel puts it, from Crash avoidance to Crash amelioration. The parallel with war strategy is not arbitrary –the construction of vast highway systems was propelled by the strategy of nuclear war and the imperative to make cities evacuable in record time.

“By the early 1950s, however, the basic terms and tendency of auto-safety discourse had changed dramatically. The emphasis was no longer on the prevention (and progressive elimination) of accidents but, rather, on the reduction of crash injuries and fatalities. This conceptual and discursive shift - from a regime of crash avoidance to one of crash amelioration - was tied to the emergence of a new technoscientific ritual: the automobile-collision experiment. Full-scale "accidents," complete with humanoid dummies as human surrogates, were painstakingly re-created at several industrial and institutional sites across America during the postwar period. Intricate systems of instrumentation, electronic and photographic, were used to facilitate the observation, registration, and analysis of the collisional process in all of its aspects: every motion, every mechanical deformation, every anatomical contortion.”

Those tests were performed at sites that, five years before, had used dummies for another purpose – to explore the effect of incendiary bombing. The US Air force would construct Japanese like houses in order to understand how best to burn them down and how best to make sure their inhabitants would also fry.

This history is in the background of the evolutionary restraints that came into play with my man in the white car this morning, speeding towards a red stop light.

In a sense, what happened was a triumph for the second regime. The collision of the cars did not crush either of them, or cause them to burst into flame, as in the movies. The drivers emerged alive – the passengers were not strewn across the asphalt, bleeding.

However, one has to ask: what is waiting to a humanoid dummy?

For the automobile environment is not only about the individual human being and his or her proprioceptive system, but the interlocking of all those systems on the road, in traffic, and on all the roads that follow the driver, in memory, or that the driver envisions, in the future. What the driver learns, and what is communicated throughout all our technical systems, is that waiting is an almost unbearable negation of the driver’s purpose. Waiting is the enemy.

Waiting, however, is not the enemy. Waiting, I would say, is the hidden foundation of ethics. Not respect – respect derives from waiting.

Which is a position I should defend at some future time.  

Thursday, October 08, 2015

file under end of nature

This is a sad fact from an review of a book in the latest LRB: Near the start of the book, "Near the start of the book he gives a list of words that have recently been dropped from the Oxford Junior Dictionary. I’ll reproduce them in full because they represent a fairly hideous symptom of what is going on: ‘acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture, willow’. (The new additions to the dictionary mostly concern electronic media.) " I'm sorry, but what genius decided that kids don't need to know the word mistetoe - not to speak of kingfisher and cowslip! First they come for 'dandelion'... I guess the powers that be have already determined that, as there is nothing to be done about global climate change, they will teach the kids the definition of "youtube" as a compensation.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

old halloween

In Adam’s class this week, they are working on nursery rhymes – Adam now knows that Humpty Dumpty fell off a wall, although, like the rest of us, he is rather foggy about who put him, or failed to put him, together again. He much prefers, at that point in the tale to go back to the wall – Humpty dumpty fell off a wall, humpty dumpty had a great fall, humpty fell off a WALL, daddy! I’m glad to see that my son already knows that you don’t bury your lede.
However, they are also learning about ghosts. And every day, when I come to pick him up, I see more orange and black in the room.
Yesterday, A. taught him about Jack o lanterns. It was A.’s first Jack o Lantern too, but she did a bang up job.
All of this has made me think about the Halloween mission creep.
When I was a kid (says Grandfather Simpson)… when I was a kid, Halloween was pretty firmly a children’s holiday. You could tell the kids who couldn’t let go when they’d appear, heads taller than the rest of the crowd, begging for treats. Those were the kids whose parents were always being called into conferences with their teachers; those were the kids with the bully problem, either doing it themselves or receiving it.
Time marches on, in big black leather boots, right over my face, in fact. At some point Halloween became a teen and then a college student party day. Les fetes des masques nous manquent – Martin Luther killed carnival, the rat bastard. So it makes sense that something like Halloween would emerge from a culture still ruled by a Protestant elite but increasingly Catholic. This is a good thing.
It also makes sense that the dead time between the end of summer break and Thanksgiving is a long, long time. The day dwindles, and all we do is work – that can’t be right! Halloween has started to fill that space.
What disturbs me, however, is that as the grocery stores start to stock up on Halloween a month before the day happens, and the decorations turn macabre (in a commercially approved way) on October 1st, something of the holiday spirit goes out of it. It was, commercially speaking, small change –and now commerce has infected it with the usual malign effects. We speak of the “market” in very abstract terms. In fact, small markets like those that used to supply candy and costumes for Halloween did differ in their culture from the large markets that take over the logistics of holiday enjoyment, sexing up the costumes, making the scares an adjunct to the latest slasher series. I’m just grateful they’ve left us the pumpkins.

When the pumpkins are replaced, I will be very sad. It will be something like Jack o IPAD, and their will be Intellectual Property rights. Oh Oh Oh.

Harlequin's politics

"But if we had been asked, who are you for – Kaedin, Kornilov, or the Bolsheviks, Task and I would have chosen the Bolsheviks.  However, in a certain comedy, the harlequin was asked, Do you prefer to be hanged or quartered? He answered, I prefer soup.”

Viktor Shklovsky is a hard writer to get a grip on. More than most writers, his essence is quicksilver – that wrestler’s metaphor is peculiarly inappropriate for a man who so loved the one or two sentence paragraph. Getting a grip on Shklovsky is like wrestingly a necklace.

But one can say certain things. I’m currently reading The Knight’s Move. Skhlovsky begins the book, a seemingly disparate collection of pieces, with a sort of stunning image – that of the knight’s move in chess. There are many reasons for  the “strangeness” of the knight’s L shaped move in the game, Shklovsky writes. But one of them is this – “the knight is not free- it moves in an L shaped manner because it is forbidden to take the straight road.”

And, a typical Shklovsky device, he drops the matter. But since the move entitles the book, and the book is about literature, there is surely a broader implication. I would take that implication to be that all the notions that traditionally refer to the artist’s freedom, or familiarity with chance, the whole dual notion of inspiration, in which the freedom of creation is granted only at the cost of annuling the creator, in as much as inspiration exists outside of and through the creator, are subsumed in the iron law of the strange move. Strangeness, the disjunction, the lateral movement, are not so much spontaneous but rigged. And yet, what is being rigged but a violation of the conventions of the straight road? And even if the movement is rigged, its effects are not. This is where Shklovsky’s image differs from the inspiration traditon, which situates inspiration not only outside the author but outside the work. The work is the product of inspiration, in this way of thinking. For Shklovsky, it is precisely the inverse. Inspiration is a product of the work – that is, the devises in the work are both inspired and inspiring, creating other devices.

In work, however, in which the devices seem to force us all into straight lines – in work that is, for instance, political – the knight must make a harlequin’s leap – that is, prefer that choice that isn’t given.     

Sunday, October 04, 2015

tests for great or not so great literature

One of the common reviewer bromides is the phrase, one test for great literature, or one test of a great book, etc., with some x being the test – that it can be read over and over, that it transcends convention, etc., etc.
I’ve come up with a new test.
Here it is. Take any text – an essay, poem, story, novel – and sit down and read it next to a little boy watching a Youtube video of some of his favorite Oswald the Octopus cartoons.
For those pariahs outside the Oswald orbit, Oswald is a sweet tempered Octopus with a dog and a number of friends – a penguin, Henry, and Daisy, a daisy, among them – and Oswald typically has a problem that involves these friends, as for instance he wants to collect something (Henry collects spoons and Daisy leaves). Out of this problem evolves a series of episodes in which niceness triumphs and some life lessons are snuck in. All of this happens in a world where the most complex words are issued by Daisy, and these consist of Yipporapparoonie, or Fanfuntastic. Otherwise, characters do not speak with Shakespearean eloquence. The closest to that is when the twins, two eggs, get on the swing and one of them says I’m going higher, and the other says now I’m going higher, and then the other says Now I’m going higher – you get the gist. Which, I gotta say, Sam Beckett might like.
Reading next to that, I often experience some kind of linguistic transposition between what I am reading and what is occuring in Oswald’s world. The sentences in the book I am reading suddenly seem light, and not too far removed from the twins – or at least Henry. This is especially so with run of the mill mysteries, where the investigator rarely climbs the heights of I’m going higher/now I’m going higher. Swing swing, swing swing, crime explained, criminal caught.

I’d don’t quite know how to grade my results. Some of the transposition might only pick out the innocent text, that is,  innocent in Blake’s sense. Sometimes, however, it cruelly picks out the level of plausibility that the book rests on – the kind of plausibility that is generated among 13 year olds. And that isn’t good – that is, if you are forty or more years older than 13 year olds.

Southern California Death Trip

    “He was kind but he changed and I killed him,” reads the caption of the photo of a woman in an old tabloid. She was headed to ...