Category: Culture

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A stylized bust of Phryne

Phryne and the Mysteries of the Female Breast

Phryne (fry-nee), whose real name was Mnesarete (“commerating virtue”) was an ancient Greek courtesan from the 4th century BCE. She was said to have been of surpassing beauty—at least to the Ancient Greeks. Praxiteles, who was also her lover, used her as the model for his statue Aphrodite of Knidos, the first nude statue of a woman from ancient Greece. This hetaera is also famous for her trial on charges of impiety, where her lawyer, seeing Phryne’s case in jeopardy, made her bare her breasts for the jury in order to incite their pity (compassion). No one wanted to convict a prophetess and priestess of Aphrodite. This story may be apocryphal, but the idea that the mere sight of a woman’s breast may lend weight to a positive verdict is interesting and maybe instructive, though our modern juridical practices probably preclude such a tactic.

There are mysteries which confound, entice, and fascinate: What is the true nature of our reality? Where, exactly, was Atlantis, if it ever really existed? How did the pyramids get built? Are aliens Out There waiting to get on Facebook (excuse me…Meta)? But one seems especially intriguing and especially titillating—why, as the story of Phryne suggests, do heterosexual men and hetero women (and many not so hetero) love female breasts?  […]

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Monopoly money, to help dissect the problem of the criterion

The Problem of the Criterion: A Practical Case

The Problem of the Criterion is not just a perplexing philosophical problem, an exercise in logical thinking, or something to propose to a classroom filled with students, but a practical problem that can affect every consumer every day.

The problem may be generally stated as follows (following Roderick Chisholm): 1) Which propositions are true? 2) How can we tell which propositions are true?  What are the criteria of knowledge?

These are not questions concerning the nature of truth itself.  These are epistemic questions, so that one theoretically might have the answers to 1 and 2 without having a theory of truth at all.

It seems, upon closer inspection, that we cannot answer (1) unless we know the answer to (2), but can’t answer that until we know the answer to number one, leaving us in a skeptical whirl of confusion. In other words, we can’t know if a proposition is true unless we know what the standard for truth is for that particular proposition, but how do we know what that standard is to be if we can’t know what is true? There seems to be a lot of hand-wringing over this aspect of the Problem of the Criterion, with some attempted “solutions” to it, including Explanatory Particularism, Coherentism, and Applied Evidentialism. The Stoics come in for some criticism here, but their approach to this problem was pretty simple, if unsatisfactory to the philosophic community. In their quest for “quietude” they held their acceptance of any proposition at arm’s length, skeptically viewing it as, perhaps unverified but workable, since they also believed that, practically, they had to live a life in the daily world everyone else (including themselves) inhabits. Following that approach, I offer such a pragmatic effort with an example. […]

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Photo Jamie McCartney's "The Great Wall of Vagina", which includes examples of labiaplasty

Labiaplasty: The Body As Enemy

Almost from the moment humans and perhaps our cousins (no longer extant) became fully aware of their bodies and could take the time and make the space from just surviving, the body became a canvas, a pronouncement, a proclamation. The body was used to celebrate, to mark Others, to say things about the world, to admit to the Collective Mind of all we humans that the body was not merely a flesh housing or prison, but an intention, a text, a dialogue, a way of communicating, for good or ill, to all—and to ourselves. It was an extension of the mind, a canvas of signs, a part or who we were. It was not an enemy.

Even with the advent of tattooing, even with those full-body dragons, even with whole murals on a naked back—and even that ubiquitous circle of black thorns on a bicep, we have a statement: this is my body, decorated, alive. Tats went from underworld statements of solidarity, and secret shadow-world announcements only for those in the know or in the life, to being universally accepted as decorative assertions of Whatever, for everyone. Underneath that banker’s three-thousand-dollar suit may lurk some Asian scrolls or cute animated characters. On the left buttock of the housewife in the produce aisle of the local grocery store flutters a colorful hummingbird.

Humans have always done wonderful, innovative things to their bodies, and as technology has evolved, so has the desire of the human mind to expand, the desire to proclaim, to enhance, to shout out to the world, “See me!  See my body!” From making one’s hair the color of a fire in a paint factory, to breasts with remarkable buoyancy and extension, humans are proclaiming the semiotic body. Each iteration was an extension into the world of the companion body, our partner in proclamation. It was not an enemy. […]

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An illustration of Carol Doda on a wall

Vaccine Mandates vs. Carol Doda

I clearly remember the first, and only, time I saw Carol Doda perform. It was the 60s and I was just strolling the boulevard in the North Beach section of San Francisco when I saw it: a neon outline of a blonde woman in a black bikini, complete with pink flashing lights for nipples. I had never heard of Carol Doda until then, but I saw the sign and the huge crowd waiting in an unruly, eager mob to get in—the bouncers at the club would let three people out and four people in, guaranteeing the place would stay packed. There were topless dancers in the country before Doda, but her act was breathtaking—from the size of her bounteous chest to her humor, singing, dancing, and wisecracking. It would be safe to say that she formally ushered in the topless craze (movement). As I left the Condor club, I was pretty sure this type of entertainment was maxed out, that no more could be done along these lines. To echo the sentiments of the cowboys in “Oklahoma!”: they’d gone about as far as they can go. How wrong I was.

Not too long after (I’m not talking geologic time here), I was invited to a new club in the San Fernando Valley by a co-worker. The ladies performing there were not only topless, but bottomless. The sign on the front of the place proclaimed that “If you are offended by nude entertainment, please do not enter.” I entered (purely for research purposes, of course) and found that adult live entertainment, public entertainment, had indeed advanced to another stage—far removed from the Condor and Carol Doda. Again, I foolishly decided that there was nothing further which could be shown.  Once a lady is wearing only stilettos and a smile on stage, that seemed pretty much the end of the Possible. But this was before the internet, adult channels in family motels, TV ads just short of soft-core porn, and the general sexualizing of society. Are we now, finally in the end stage of skin and sin? No. There is holographic sex in the pipeline and it will be so real, one will not miss a flesh-and-blood partner very much, if at all. There are androids which can be built to a customer’s specific requirements and perform sexually, also to his or her requirements. Yes, those will cost plenty, but as this advances—and it seems to be doing just that—imagine a whole section in Walmart for the buyer of more limited means. And sexuality is oozing out into corners not inspected by the vast majority, as evidenced graphically by Playboy’s October 2021 digital cover, which features a man (Bretman Rock) in full Bunny regalia. In fact, it seems that we are way, way, past Carol Doda and the Condor club, headed…somewhere.

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A shot of Robert Frost from Shirley Clark's "Robert Frost: A Lover's Quarrel with the World"

Choose Your Quarrel: Why Creativity Can’t Be Taught

With so many grave events in concurrent quarrel, it seems futile to complain about the state of the arts. Where has the quality gone? The critical thinking? The investment in craft? There is this myth that a university education will somehow offer not just critical thinking but a segue into creativity. Those who believe it confuse didacticism with vision. They place too much trust in institution. I, too, was guilty of this, until I witnessed so much incompetence emerging from writing professors. (I once saw a poem by a PhD in English Literature that began with the line, ‘The heart is a treasure box.’) Deep, huh? Does that sound like someone with good, creative advice? Someone from whom you could learn?

My best educational experience was my high school English teachers. My senior year teacher, especially, had a very smart and fluid mind and I find it interesting that her college major was not literature but fine arts. Mrs. Vaughan. She was a painter, yet she could make connections in literature that I never witnessed from my university professors. Following graduation, I entered university as an English major in the hopes I’d become a great writer. I dropped it after one semester, partly because I did not want to work in a bank. ‘Every English major ends up working in a bank,’ I was told.

But this wasn’t the reason I dropped it, mind you, as I realize the hyperbole in that statement. (Yet admittedly, working in a coffee shop with a mound of debt due to a liberal arts degree did not sound appealing.) Whilst my university time was before ‘the art is only as good as one’s politics,’ I just didn’t feel like I was learning anything that I couldn’t teach myself. I had one professor who was so stolid in his thinking that he would give us quizzes over literary assignments that were detailed to the point of ridiculousness. Basically, one would have to memorize a play in order to pass it. What is the point? Talk about stripping the love from literature—no wonder no one wants to read. Eventually, we students suggested he speak about themes rather than facts. So, he proceeded to write on the board: THEMES 1), 2), 3). Amid such rigidity, how did he miss his calling as an accountant, exactly? (No wonder the banking analogy.) […]

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Ursula K. Le Guin portrait alongside his book, The Compass Rose

Cardinal Directions: Contemporary Fantasy vs. Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Compass Rose”

Fantasy is an easy genre to write in, but a tricky one to get right.

I’d wager that most children first catch the bug of obsessive reading with a book that can, however loosely, be shelved under “Fantasy”. After all, it’s perfectly primed for such budding minds: vast, imaginary landscapes, wacky characters with wacky names, surreal events, sweeping adventures, and so on. For a reader like myself, whose love for literature first developed out of a need for whimsical escapism, it’s difficult to shake the genre’s influence on the mind even when one’s taste diversifies outside of the market, and especially when one gets to writing books instead of just reading them. Its allure is undeniable: the author is not straightjacketed by realism, nor is she indebted to any kind of historical accuracy – why, when she can create her reality’s rules, and its past, ex nihilo? This is writing, when in its infancy, borrowed mostly from myths and legends, where fantastical thinking was required to describe and explain away strange phenomena, or to simply make shit up, sans the sort of demarcations our contemporary understanding of literature requires writers to adhere to.

Of course, the moment when one starts waxing poetic about fantasy, cliches start snapping shut around one’s feet. Before I feel the urge to pinpoint what, exactly, “Fantasy” is, or to differentiate its sub-genres and practitioners, I’ll do my best to keep any talk of the genre strictly in terms of craft and leave the rest to scholars. Suffice it to say that writing fantasy is no more or less imaginative than science fiction, horror, mystery, crime, thrillers, and “literary fiction” (a rather bland label for books we’re expected to take seriously, as distinct from the previously mentioned categories), the only real differences being that of flavor, style, and aesthetics – imagining oneself into 19th century Indonesia, or writing about blue-collar workers in Alberta, or writing a free-verse sonnet from the perspective of a government bureaucrat are about as extraordinary a set of acts as creating a dragon, in my view. To write anything in a fictional mode is to fantasize, to morph the world into one’s desired image, and even the most outlandish tales require some mooring to reality. Isn’t anything set in Narnia or Prydain or Discworld or the caverns of Mars essentially set on the most familiar ground of all: the human mind? Even if the characters portrayed resemble none of the organic life on Earth? […]

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A stylized fresco of Confucius

A Nation in Need: Confucius & the Rectification of Names

It is the signature idea of Confucianism, something which the Chinese sage said in response to a question: If he had the authority, what action would he take? “Rectify the names,” Confucius responded. He meant not only the practical and communication aspects of naming things, but creating meaning and aligning structures and relations within society. His was a fragmented and confused society then, and the Sage felt that a new realignment, a new beginning was necessary, a way of  re-conforming a wayward and unfocused society, a way of making things right.

Confucius saw society as a community of trust, not competing factions, an interwoven cooperative and communicative whole, an organic unity. As a contributing, participating member, one is expected to recognize the existence of others and to serve the public good. The idea is that it is the king’s duty to act kingly and the father’s duty to act fatherly. If kings and fathers fail in their responsibilities, the whole system comes unraveled. In such a society, a father must ACT as a father; a son must act as one; each member of the family has a place, a designated title, and must fill that place conscientiously, so that the society as a whole hums like a well-tuned Maserati. There is one thing missing in all this: how do you get a consensus about those pesky definitions? If a society runs smoothly and cooperatively based on all doing their part, on everyone knowing his or her place and performing the appropriate behaviors, but if there is absolutely NO agreement on ANY definitions, what happens?

The Stoics—specifically, Sextus Empiricus—brought up this Problem of the Criterion (“the wheel”). It is an epistemological problem which has not been resolved to this day. This problem of knowledge, simply put, is that for one to assert some Proposition A to be true, one must have some standard, some criterion, to measure it by—but THAT standard is an unproven assumption, so what standard is used to measure THAT assumption? […]

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A snapshot of images from the video, set to Emily Haines's song, Statuette.

How To Use Women: Matthew O’Rourke’s “Statuette” (2021) & Emily Haines

Hello. You don’t know me, but before we proceed you should at least know my film, Statuette. The link is here. It’s 6 minutes long. Watch.

Maybe you know me now. Maybe you don’t. Part of me hopes not. There’s an argument that filmmakers, more than any artists, aren’t represented in their art. I mean: want to write a great poem? Simply write a great poem! A great novel? Easy! What’s stopping you? Sure, you may not get these things published, but you can still make precisely the art you want, about the topics you want, from the comfort of your own home.

But, alas, the poor filmmakers. Orson Welles once bemoaned that we don’t know his films, just the ones that got produced, and I – slyly pushing myself into the same sentence – reckon I understood. You think I dreamt all my life about making a short film about women in porn? Well, I didn’t. But circumstances happen, and the idea didn’t require assembling a cast, finding equipment, and most importantly, was free – at least, depending on your valuation of time. So I did it.

Okay, maybe there’s a bit more to it. Not everyone scours xVideos and PornHub to find fodder for art, after all – though I’m sure some have claimed to. Well, what happened was that I was watching a video game livestream and heard a song that I liked. It was written and performed by Emily Haines and was called “Statuette”. I didn’t know then that I was going to hear it more than anyone who ever lived – but that’s for later. Back then, it was just a song that sounded nice, and so I looked it up on YouTube.