Friday, March 14, 2014

Donald Wright & Day of Solidarity for Black Non-Believers

On Sunday February 23 I attended the 4th annual Day of Solidarity for Black Non-Believers, founded by Donald R. Wright, author of The Only Prayer I'll Ever Pray: Let My People Go (2009).

Meetings are held all over the country; this one was in Washington, DC, and delightful as usual. Even better, I won the "door prize", Donald Wright's book, pictured to the left!

The pool of Black freethinkers is rapidly expanding. I can't keep up with everything that's going on. It's one bright spot in an otherwise all too depressing world.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Anthony B. Pinn: from the Black church to atheism

The more I see Anthony B. Pinn, the more I like him. Also, he turns out to be a fellow Buffalonian. Sunday March 9 he gave a talk in Washington DC under the auspices of the Center for Free Inquiry and its affiliate African Americans for Humanism, in conjunction with the publication of his memoir Writing God's Obituary: How a Good Methodist Became a Better Atheist.

Because the arguments concerning religious beliefs, religions, God, etc., are all old hat to me, I'm not interested in them, and I find storytelling much more valuable, as seeing how people develop and react to their social and ideological environment in context is more revealing to me. In Dr. Pinn's case, we see his total immersion in family and church in childhood, his growing pains and doubts in adolescence, his experience of a diversity in New York city he had not known, and the conclusions he drew from the discrepancies between Bible belief and coping with real world issues. He also gave his reasons for continuing to intervene in Religious Studies rather than to wash his hands of the whole subject as many of his fellow atheists would prefer. One of those reasons is to seek to minimize the harm caused by religion.

There were a few audience members so convinced of the power of reason they could not fully appreciate how it could be resisted to the last atom of one's being. I tend to be pessimistic about the prospects, but we all have our job to do.

So by all means, check out Dr. Pinn, see him if he shows up in your town.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Eddie Glaude Jr. in person, where music trumps philosophy

I blogged here twice about philosopher Eddie Glaude, Jr. after trashing him as philosopher on my Studies in a Dying Culture blog:

Tavis Smiley meets Eddie Glaude: Black pragmatism in action

As I mentioned in my second post here, Glaude re-posted my first post on this blog, without comment, on his own blog on 3 comments followed.

Given the way I blasted Glaude in writing, it is only fair that I balance my account of him by recounting an agreeable personal encounter.

The stage for this encounter was an event that took place on the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington. The event was held on August 28, 2013 at George Washington University: Soundtrack of a Movement: Freedom Songs in Perspective. The moderator of the event was Eddie Glaude, Jr.

Julian Bond was a featured speaker. I positioned myself to shake his hand after the event, but as he was coming down the aisle of the auditorium, just before he got to me, his attention was diverted by a pretty girl and I lost my chance.

There were also various artistic performances, among the artists my esteemed colleague harmonica virtuoso Frédéric Yonnet. Here are two videos of student performances: Soundtrack of a Movement 1; Soundtrack of a Movement 2.

It was an inspiring event, and Glaude did a great job. After schmoozing with various acquaintances and strangers afterward, I ran into Glaude as we exited the building. We two were among the last to leave. I did not identify myself as the person who trashed his philosophy. Rather I discussed music with him. When I mentioned the Spirituals, he melted. We shared a moment. I know my conversation made him happier than he was already and vice versa. Such moments of inspiration are what we live for.

So there, my two contrasting takes on Glaude. There is a difference between sensibility and concepts, between literature and philosophy, between theory and cultural expression. I find it tragic that in their eagerness to find an outlet for a certain sensibility and reaction to their world, people like Cornel West and Glaude do such a terrible job as philosophers. How is it that Richard Wright did so much better, working in a literary rather than philosophical genre? This is a vital topic to conceptualize and discuss. 

Philosophy is not cultural expression, even while it reflects social realities and ideological biases. If some philosophy is an expression of a given cultural formation, that might be the very reason NOT to celebrate it as an organic cultural expression but to criticize it as an ideological expression. It may well be that a foreign tradition reveals more about society X than society X's own predominant philosophy. See my post:

Pragmatism Blues

Even given the historical prevalence of a certain type of philosophy in a nation or region, e.g. pragmatism in the USA, empiricism in the UK, rationalism in France, etc., while the prevalence of these philosophies is in some sense an expression, better to say a product, of given social circumstances, that is not to say that said philosophical schools are essentially national or ethnic in character except insofar as they deal with cultural/social/specifics. There is a philosophical spectrum in every major civilization and no single philosophy that expresses its essence. (Also: I deem ontology, epistemology and logic to be the heart of philosophy, and all the rest mere commentary.) Hence there is a richness to be found in the philosophical spread of the major civilizations--Greek, Indian, Chinese, Islamic, etc. Whereas something like African philosophy, which grows out of an identity crisis, is anemic in comparison. And the notion of "black philosophy" is to me an absurdity, though there indeed are black philosophers, some or most of whom have dealt with the "black experience".

To translate sensibility into a non-mystical, non-metaphysical formulation is an endeavor yet to be undertaken. It was a major concern of mine when African American humanism finally surfaced in organizational form at the end of the 1980s. I was hoping to overcome the tedium of the atheist/humanist milieu. This was before the universal availability of the Internet. Well, we are a generation past and now in the fully interactive online era, in which the black atheist/humanist/skeptics movement suddenly blossomed just a few years ago and in which the atheist/etc. movement flourishes throughout cyberspace. A plethora of social and cultural interests are to be found, but not much philosophical progress. One aspect of confronting religious obfuscation is engaging cultural expression, confronting the seductive dimension of artistic expression as a vehicle of religiosity.

Eddie, wherever you are, I like you as a person, even if not as a philosopher.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Imagination, logic, & life

Here is an email I wrote for a group several years ago, just retrieved:

10 February 2005

Imagination & logic, the shape of life & the shape of thought

While scooting about town yesterday, I ran several complete narratives through my head. Typing, however, is much slower, and I've been burning all my candles at all ends, so I'll have to content myself with summarizing what I'm not going to say.

(1) A narrative tentatively titled "Street Life Monadology" is an autobiographical review of the summer and fall of 1979, illustrating the juxtaposition of philosophical reflection and everyday life, and sometimes the unplanned coincidences between the two.  However, except for the entertainment value, I see no advantage in posting it here, because there are no generalizable conclusions to be drawn from it. My aim would have been to show the close relation between philosophizing and everyday life and my own driving motivations of the time, but in fact this is not the story that will do it, and the appropriate stories to be told would require even greater effort to reconstruct.

(2) I wanted to write up my perceptions of the effects of the philosophical culture of analytical philosophy on people I've known, to illustrate its debilitating effect on imagination and creativity. Which is not to say that I disavow the specific products that issue from this work—as much of it is stuff that interested me in the past—but I'm interested in what could be called philosophical culture, or the milieu that molds minds in a particular way, which is where I see the problem. This is by no means to validate its dishonest and hypocritical competitor, irrationalism. In any event, each is indispensable to the other.

(3) One problem with the association of life and philosophy is the unavoidability of being held hostage to a limited set of available ideas which at some point in time are attractive because they resonate so well with what is going on in the times, and individually. Only with time, more knowledge, and good fortune, is it possible to see that the shapes of both life and thought at an earlier stage of development were contoured in different ways than one suspected at the time. This is one reason to be wary.

(4) While I thought I saw the handwriting on the wall in the late '70s, as I always think I do, I could not see the shape of thought from a sufficiently wide angle. I only met Aant Elzinga, who does historical science studies in Sweden, in the 1980s, in another stage of my existence, and he gave me a few of his papers. But I didn't absorb the lessons even then. I wish I had read the following paper back in 1978 when he wrote it, and when I had no clue about the perspective contained therein, but he only sent it to me two years ago:

The Man of Science in a World of Crisis: A Plea for a Two-Pronged Attack on Positivism and Irrationalism.


"The hidden harmony is better than the visible." — Heraclitus

Sunday, December 22, 2013

65th anniversary for Rootless Cosmopolitans!

Today was one of my two candidates for the establishment of a Rootless Cosmopolitans Day. "Rootless Cosmopolitans" was a Stalinist code word for Jews, marking a deadly turn in the nasty anti-Semitic history of almost the entire life span of the Soviet Union. The USSR, already gripped by Stalinist paranoia in the purges of the 1930s, took an even more paranoiac ultra-nationalist, xenophobic turn following its victory over the Nazis, mimicking their bigotry, scapegoating, and destructive cultural policies (the era of Zhdanov).  This ultranationalist, anti-western campaign against "unpatriotic" "cosmopolitan" elements began in 1946 (August 14, in Pravda), and on December 22, 1948, it was specifically tied to Jews, in this speech:

A. Fadeev: "O nekotorykh prichinakh otstavanie sovetskoi dramaturgii" [On Several Reasons for the Lag in Soviet Dramaturgy], Literaturnaya gazeta (Moscow), 22 December 1948, p. 1.

And from there, it only got worse, leading to a murderous campaign against Soviet Jews terminated only by Stalin's death.

Aside from the fact that the anti-Semitic campaign is today eligible for Social Security, it remains relevant. Eastern Europe is a worse anti-Semitic sewer today than it was under Soviet rule, reverting to its prior glorious heritage. But it is also not a dead issue in the USA, for countless Americans are locked in rigid racial/religious categories and simply cannot understand, even when they are not overtly hostile, those sneaky, slippery, chameleon Jews, especially the secular ones, that elude fixed categorization. They don't understand the firmly religious/ethnic ones very well, either.

So rootless cosmopolitans, stand proud, say it loud, and fuck 'em if they can't take a joke!

My other choice for Rootless Cosmopolitans Day is July 27, on which day in 1656 Baruch Spinoza, blessed be he, was expelled from the Jewish community, thus becoming history's first rootless cosmopolitan in theory and in practice.


"From Anti-Westernism to Anti-Semitism" by Konstantin Azadovskii and Boris Egorov in Journal of Cold War Studies, 4:1, Winter 2002, pp. 66–80.

"About one anti-patriotic group of theatre critics," Pravda, 28 January, 1949, p. 3.

Rootless cosmopolitan - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Samuel R. Delany & the uses & limits of myth

In his early science fiction of the 1960s, Samuel R. Delany incorporated myth into his quest scenarios, in a highly unconventional manner, even with his first novel written in his teenage years, The Jewels of Aptor.

But already in The Einstein Intersection, Delany posits the limits of myth in providing models for the human condition. Delany's art attained a new level of maturity in the 1970s, always pushing the limits and posing the fundamental questions.

The limits of myth can also be seen in Tales of Nevèrÿon (1979) and Neveryóna, or: The Tale of Signs and Cities (1983).

I am hardly doing justice to the conceptual richness of Delany's fiction. I am broaching Delany's work on this blog in conjunction with my project on the limits of myth, however retooled and reinterpreted to create a perspective different from traditionally authorized meanings. Read this post in conjunction with my preceding posts on the Eden and Cain/Abel myths and Erich Fromm.

See also my capsule description of Delany's work published in the letters column of the Washington City Paper:

Bonny Delany: on science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany

From Adam & Eve to Cain & Abel

In line with an ongoing project, I finally put together a working though obviously non-comprehensive bibliography on unusual treatments of the Eden and Cain/Abel myths, actually two bibliographies, one in English and one in Esperanto (consisting of original and translated works in the respective languages), which do not completely overlap, as there is much that is found in only one of these languages:
Suggestions for additions are welcome.

Not everything gets translated, for example, Johannes Linnankoski's play in Finnish, Ikuinen taistelu (1903, ‘The eternal struggle’). See:

Johannes Linnankoski (Pseudonym of Johannes Vihtori Peltonen, 1869-1913): Literature in English & Esperanto

Ever since reading Byron's Cain in 1979, in conjunction with Blake's The Ghost of Abel, I have been interested in the reversal of the orthodox meanings of myths canonized in sacred texts. One sees an autonomous reconfiguration of myth in British Romanticism, in Blake, Byron, and Shelley. I have recently returned to this subject in engagement with literary uses and unorthodox interpretations of the Edenic and Cain/Abel myths, for example, with Imre Madách's classic verse drama The Tragedy of Man and with Erich Fromm's psychoanalytic and humanist interpretation of the Old Testament. I am interested in how far the meanings of these mythical constructs can be stretched in literary interpretations before their deployment bumps up again insuperable limitations. I am also interested in the fundamental flaws and intellectual duplicity of liberal religion. (See my previous post on Erich Fromm.)