Saturday, May 21, 2005

Caesar's Bath

After waiting in vain for a specific invitation to this blogging meme (hey Aunt Elena, would a little nepotism have been so bad?), I've decided to take Camassia's general indult.

Behold, the Caesar’s Bath meme! List five things that people in your circle of friends or peer group are wild about, but you can’t really understand the fuss over. To use the words of Caesar (from History of the World Part I), “Nice. Nice. Not thrilling…but nice.”

This has been used mostly for pop culture (I've seen responses of "American Idol", "The Incredibles", "Monty Python", "bashing Harry Potter", etc). But I decided to take it in a bit of a different direction, as they say. Here goes:

1. Social Commentary Masquerading As Literature. It doesn't matter whether I agree with the author or not. I got sick of "The Flying Inn" just as I got sick of "The World According to Garp". I'm not saying that literature shouldn't reflect on the world around it, now. But when half of the characters are written not as recognizably human characters, but as instructive stereotypes, there's a problem. When the humor of the book depends on the reader sharing the author's disgust at a certain group of political adversaries, there's a problem. Books don't have to be apolitical (see one of my favorites, "All the King's Men"), but I personally can't stand reading a novel that clearly began as a political statement in the author's mind.

(As regards Chesterton, I do like the CQT stories, for instance- it's just that in some of his other fiction, he makes his "modernity isn't all that great" point with an unnecessary sledgehammer.)

2. Soup. This is probably due to my poor sense of smell, which prevents me from fully appreciating flavor. But the texture of certain soups just bores me. The limp vegetables of minestrone, the bland and grainy lentil soup, the soggy meat of chicken noodles, etc- they're often just a culinary punishment for me. (Some exceptions: I do like egg drop soup and borscht.)

3. Reductio Ad Absurdum. I object not to the philosophical principle in general, but to its overuse and misuse in the blogosphere. I groan inwardly when another comments-box Cicero writes "well, if you believe X, why not Y? And boy, we all see that Y is obviously wrong. So you must be wrong." This gets my goat whether I agree or disagree with X:

"You believe that some wars can be just? You mean you believe that it's OK to drop bombs on civilian populations?"

"You believe it was OK to kill Terri Schiavo in this way? You mean you believe we should simply kill all the disabled?"

I winced similarly in both cases (and, as you might guess, I believe that just wars are possible and also that ending Terri's life by dehydration was immoral). It's sloppy argument, as it really applies the reductio principle backwards: rather than showing that the questioned principle X implies or leads to Y, the commenter uses the fact that Y implies X to condemn X. It's irresponsible, and hard to rationally combat. And it's the darling of too many armchair philosophers in the blogosphere.

4. Mistaken Identity. It's one of the oldest plot devices, from the Greeks to Shakespeare to whatever sitcom is number one these days. And I just don't have the reaction of amusement I'm supposed to have. Instead, I feel remotely queasy about the whole thing. I guess that the prospect of assuming someone else's identity, when it comes down to it, is something that appears not fun but fearsome to me. Think of the first half of the scene in Collateral when Max has to impersonate Vincent. That tension, which was intentional in that scene, is what I usually end up feeling in other mistaken-identity plots, when I gather I'm supposed to be laughing at the confusion.

(Beware: rant ahead)

5. Sociology. The shiny new science of obfuscation, now in full command of the U of C Divinity School and other organizations. I audited a class on Durkheim last year, I've read some of my roommate's books of sociology. And I've come to the conclusion that you can say anything at all as a sociologist, and come up with pages and pages of argument for it in a convincing style. Convincing, because of the pronounced narrative dimension to sociological writing. As with history, you become convinced because you're reading a story. That's all well and good, but historians have the good habit of telling stories of actual, researchable, fact-checkable entities: people, well-defined groups of people, certain ideas in the literature of the time. Sociologists get to make up their entities and tell a story of them fighting, behind the scenes of the actual events we see. It's metaphysical while telling you that it's not. Ironically, it's literature masquerading as social commentary.

So that's my five. I hereby pass the baton to Alice, Cory, Nick, Ian and Geoff. You may reinterpret the assignment as you like. And you other bloggers I know? I cut it off at five pretty arbitrarily; I'm pretty sure you know one of the above bloggers well enough to ask for their summons. Be patient, grasshopper.

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