The New Statesman has published an extended interview of Tony Blair by… the Welsh actor Michael Sheen. I found it a bizarre prospect. I know nothing about Sheen — I saw him in a film once — but I’m pretty sure if I wanted to hear Blair’s opinions, an actor would be one of the last interlocutors on my list. (A judge at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, on the other hand, would be right near the top.) What is it about actors, particularly film actors, that makes people want to rub up close to them and insert them into all kinds of roles for which they are in no way especially qualified or even interesting?
My use of the word role there may suggest part of the reason: Even if actors are generally not especially intelligent, or insightful, or capable of repairing a leaky faucet, and their life experience is less relevant to the concerns of average people than pretty much anyone else’s — academics such as myself excepted — actors are used to playing the part of people who are intelligent or insightful or capable of fixing a leaky faucet, and perhaps they convey the superficial image of holding an intelligent conversation, even when they are utterly banal. (Just to be clear, I’m not saying that actors are unusually stupid: I have met some reasonably intelligent and interesting actors, and heard interviews with an occasional few who seemed genuinely fascinating. Only that their professional accomplishments give me no more expectation of their competence in any other area — or of them having anything interesting to say on any subject other than theatre and film — than members of any other profession or none.
It occurred to me, that there is an analogy to the perverse role of the finance industry. Money is sticky. That is, a significant fraction of the money running through the banks sticks to the people who handle it. It’s not at all obvious that the people who are responsible for investing and manipulating rich people’s money should themselves become rich. There is a German expression about the opposite expectation, “Pfarrers Kind und Müllers Vieh/ Gedeihen selten oder nie”: The preacher’s child and the miller’s livestock/ Will as good as never thrive. But we accept that there’s no way to prevent the people who are close to the money day in and day out from siphoning much of it into their own pockets. According to some estimates financial services in the US absorb a full 20% of all corporate income in the US.
Actors have a similar position in the attention economy. Attention is sticky. Their main job is to attract attention. And once they have the attention of a large public, the attention sticks to them, personally, even when they transition to activities that no sensible person would want to pay attention to.
I very much enjoyed the new film Yesterday, a romantic comedy with a crudely drawn science-fiction premise — What if The Beatles never existed, but one lone musician still remembered their songs — but I felt disappointed at how philosophically tame it was. At various points perplexing questions are raised about the authorship of the Beatles songs in this alternative reality.
One of my favourite short stories is Borges’s “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quijote“. In Borges’s best pseudo-academic prose it recounts the life of French author Pierre Menard, whose most important (and least known) works are “chapters nine and thirty eight of the first part of Don Quijote, and a fragment of chapter twenty-two”. The life project of Menard, it seems, was to write a modern Don Quijote. Not to write a new version of the novel, and not to copy the original, but to write the same novel, from a modern perspective. That is, he wants to lead himself, through his intellectual and life experience, to write the same words that Cervantes wrote three and a half centuries earlier. The narrator then proceeds to analyse Menard’s Quijote, and compare it to Cervantes’s version. The (very serious)’ joke is that the words are identical, but the interpretation is radically different, because of the context in which the words are being written. Continue reading “Pierre Menard and Jack Malik”
After more than a year of fantasising that Brexit would be a replay of Agincourt with less mud, after which snivelling Europeans would pay obeisance to the mighty arm of British commerce (unwilling to forego the market for Prosecco and BMWs), Brexit minister David Davis has now gone to the other extreme, making a promise so minimal that we can be pretty sure he can keep it:
Britain will not be “plunged into a Mad Max-style world borrowed from dystopian fiction” after it leaves the EU, the Brexit secretary will say in a speech.
Although, when you look at the actual text, he’s not even promising that, merely that
They fear that Brexit could lead to an Anglo-Saxon race to the bottom… with Britain plunged into a Mad Max-style world borrowed from dystopian fiction. These fears about a race to the bottom are based on nothing, not history, not intention, nor interest.
So, while he’s trying to discount this extreme scenario that no one but him has actually suggested, he won’t commit to saying it won’t happen, only that it never happened before (“history”), he’s not trying to make happen (“intention”), and he doesn’t think it would be a good thing if it did (“interest”).
It does remind us all that we must provide reassurance.
So here is the government’s reassuring promise: If Mad Max does play out in Britain it may be our fault, but we’ll regret it.
I’m fascinated by how The Godfather has become the touchstone for all attempts to understand the Trump administration. And by a line of thinking that has hardened into conventional wisdom, clearly stated in today’s op-ed by the NY Times’s token theo-conservative Ross Douthat:
As the hapless Don Jr. — the Gob Bluth or Fredo Corleone of a family conspicuously short on Michaels — protested in his own defense, the Russian rendezvous we know about came before (though only slightly before) the WikiLeaks haul was announced.
We’ve given up on any pretense that the president of the United States isn’t a gangster. Conservative thought leaders are well into lamenting that he isn’t even a competent gangster.
I just had a frightening thought: Has the entire Trump campaign been scripted by conservative neozealot David Mamet? It’s House of Games, with politics and racism.
Before even being sworn in as president, Donald Trump has assured himself a place as probably the greatest con man of all times. And one of the most important skills of the really masterful con man (one learns from Mamet) is to know how to take advantage of people thinking they’ve seen through your con. A double con. There’s no one more gullible than someone who thinks he’s seen through you. Continue reading “Are we living in a David Mamet film?”
I’ve just been reading David C. Cassidy’s updated version of his Heisenberg biography, titled BeyondUncertainty.He reports that in May 1925 Wolfgang Pauli, who was struggling together with Heisenberg to apply the new quantum theory to calculate the spectral lines of hydrogen, wrote in a letter
Physics is at the moment once again very wrong. For me, in any case, it is much too difficult, and I wish that I was a film comedian or something similar and had never heard of physics.
Here is a challenge for a young postmodernist film-maker: Produce the silent-film comedies that Wolfgang Pauli would have made, had he never heard of physics (or abandoned physics? Presumably they would have been different…)
Alternatively, a science fiction author could write about a universe governed by Charlie Chaplin’s quantum mechanics.
The New Republic has published a film review by Yishai Schwartz under the portentous title “The Edward Snowden Documentary Accidentally Exposes His Lies”. While I generally support — and indeed, am grateful — for what Snowden has done, I am also sensitive to the problems of democratic governance raised by depending on individuals to decide that conscience commands them to break the law. We are certainly treading on procedural thin ice, and our only recourse, despite the commendable wish of Snowden himself, as well as Greenwald, to push personalities into the background, is to think carefully about the motives — and the honesty — of the man who carried out the spying. So in principle I was very interested in what Schwartz has to say.
Right up front Schwartz states what he considers to be the central dishonesty of Snowden’s case:
Throughout this film, as he does elsewhere, Snowden couches his policy disagreements in grandiose terms of democratic theory. But Snowden clearly doesn’t actually give a damn for democratic norms. Transparency and the need for public debate are his battle-cry. But early in the film, he explains that his decision to begin leaking was motivated by his opposition to drone strikes. Snowden is welcome to his opinion on drone strikes, but the program has been the subject of extensive and fierce public debate. This is a debate that, thus far, Snowden’s and his allies have lost. The president’s current drone strikes enjoy overwhelming public support.
“Democratic theory” is a bit ambivalent about where the rights of democratic majorities to annihilate the rights — and, indeed, the lives — of individuals, but the reference to “overwhelming” public support is supposed to bridge that gap. So how overwhelming is that support? Commendably, Schwartz includes a link to his source, a Gallup poll that finds 65% of Americans surveyed support “airstrikes in other countries against suspected terrorists”. Now, just stopping right there for a minute, in my home state of California, 65% support isn’t even enough to pass a local bond measure. So it’s not clear that it should be seen as enough to trump all other arguments about democratic legitimacy.
Furthermore, if you read down to the next line, you find that when the targets to be exterminated are referred to as “US citizens living abroad who are suspected terrorists” the support falls to 42%. Not so overwhelming. (Support falls even further when the airstrikes are to occur “in the US”, but since that hasn’t happened, and would conspicuously arouse public debate if it did, it’s probably not all that relevant.) Not to mention that Snowden almost surely did not mean that he was just striking out at random to undermine a government whose drone policies he disapproves of; but rather, that democratic support for policies of targeted killing might be different if the public were aware of the implications of ongoing practices of mass surveillance. Continue reading “The force of “overwhelming””
With regard to Martin Scorcese’s new film “The Wolf of Wall Street”, portraying ancien règime levels of decadence and debauchery in 1990s New York finance, based on the memoir of stockbroker Jordan Belfort, fellow broker and ex-convict Danny Porush commented
The book … is a distant relative of the truth, and the film is a distant relative of the book.
It’s a strange thing to say. I’m guessing he means to say that the film is even farther from the truth than the book is, but it’s perfectly consistent with a claim that the film (unlike the book) isthe truth, or that it is closely related to the truth. By analogy, the famous rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is a distant relative of mine. And my brother is a distant relative of Adin Steinsaltz. But I am not distantly related to my brother.
… can’t they use moisturiser like everyone else? I’m sure I’ve seen this movie:
Sir John Sawers, head of MI6, said: “The leaks from Snowden have been very damaging… It is clear our adversaries are rubbing their hands with glee.”
In other reports, enemies of Britain are said by security experts to be “cackling maniacally”. And intelligence sources have reported that leading terrorist operatives have been heard gloating over our failure to stop their brilliantly contrived schemes for world domination.