March 23rd, 2008

Confrerence

It's strange that the Pac-10 men's team with the easy win today was Washington State, since they tend to grind out victories. But I guess the hurting they put on my Bears on February 28th at Haas -- after Cal beat them in Pullman earlier -- was less of an aberration than it seemed at the time. Still, Notre Dame looked strong coming in. Bobby Knight -- who clearly shares the ESPN bias against the Pac-10 -- and a host of other commentators expected the Fighting Irish to prevail. As for the other two Pac-10 teams, their games were a lot more fun to follow but also a reminder that both need to play hard all the time if they want to keep playing. For all of their experience and talent, UCLA is too lacking in consistent offensive weapons, aside from Kevin Love, to coast the way that North Carolina, Kansas or Memphis can against a lesser team playing strong defense. And Stanford's low-post game requires a little lubricant from the wings, corners and top of the key to function smoothly. But let's be done with the critique: the Pac-10 has three teams in the Sweet Sixteen again!
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Consoeurence

And the better Bears, the women's team, won their first NCAA tourney game in a long time! If they can steer clear of Stanford, they might make something of this March Madness.
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A Tumbler Full of Truth

I was adding to a comment thread with elaine4queen just now about a lovely photo she took from her train window while returning from the vicinity of Ely, a place I fantasized about as a cathedral-loving teenager, and remembered, in the course of confessing my young, male eccentricities, that I spent much of my time at Queen Anne School in the throes of an unrequited crush on Finland. And then I remembered that I'd actually written about that crush in what is probably the cheekiest review I will ever write:
I'll be honest with you. I didn't even try to listen to this record objectively. You know how some people have a thing for girls with naturally curly red hair or boys who wax their body with wood glue? I feel the same way about Finland. As a teenager, I spent hour after hour memorizing a map of that small, cold land. I fondled Finnish glassware at Bloomingdale's. I even developed a secondary fixation on the Hungarian diaspora, because Hungarian and Finnish are distantly related tongues. Once, while travelling in Germany, I had the good fortune of spending several hours next to a beautiful Finnish maid. I was sure I would derive some sexual pay-off from the coincidence. But instead of melting in my arms, she decided I was a freak. And to think I believed that reciting the names of 50 Finnish municipalities would make her wetter than a tumbler full of Finlandia!
The best thing about this paragraph is that it is all true. Well, almost. I think I had named 38 Finnish muncipalities before the lovely lass decided to sit somewhere else on our long Youth For Understanding bus ride to Berlin. She had a point, though. As I'm writing this, I'm recalling instances when I ran into European travelers who were really into some aspect of American culture and eagerly sought to prove their love to me. Generally, these individuals gave me the shivers. But I suppose I wouldn't have minded having them for pen pals.

Money

You need to be able to shoot free throws under pressure. And it sure as hell helps to have a go-to guy at the end. I had thought the Stephen Curry story was going to come to an end this afternoon when he started slow. But I was wrong. The shots he made in the last five minutes -- off the dribble even more impressively than from behind the arc -- and the free throws that followed to seal the deal make it clear that he's something special. I mean, how often does a freshman go for thirty in his tournament debut, then for forty and thirty in the first two March Madness contests of his sophomore campaign. He also looks about fifteen. Given the fact that he has already grown several inches in college, chances are good that he'll go from his current 6'3" and 180 pounds to something like 6'4" and 190 or even 200 by the time he is established in the NBA, which seems more and more like a sure thing. As those Florida Gators demonstrated last year -- and as players like Grant Hill and, yes, Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr. have shown over and over -- genealogy matters. And not in the Foucauldian sense either. Having a secure home with enough to pay the bills doesn't hurt either.

Behind the Laughter the Woulds Are Lovely, Dark and Deep

The topical nature of this graphic, which I first shared with my readers four years ago, makes it worthy of a second look. But I'd recommend looking past the surface in search of its true significance:
At first I was going to write that I'd pay money to read Slavoj Zizek riff on this image. But then I was inspired to jam a little myself. The German philosopher Jürgen Habermas has a theory of what he terms "communicative action" that I find extremely useful for making sense of social interaction. Like the sociologist Max Weber before him -- one of his biggest influences -- Habermas believes that we have to be mindful of the ideals that structure our experience, even though our practice inevitably falls short of realizing them.

Post-structuralist thinkers have tended to dismiss Habermas either as someone too willing to overlook the power relations that intrude upon everyday communication or too ready to presume that there are human traits that are not bound to particular historical and geographic contexts. What their critiques usually miss, though, is the degree of self-reflexivity that Habermas exhibits in articulating his theory. He repeatedly acknowledges the fact that he is bracketing real-world problems, but feels that doing so is a requirement for figuring out why we continue to hope and strive for understanding, despite all the evidence that suggests how difficult it is to achieve.

Although it is unfashionable and perhaps even dangerous for me to say so, I actually think that Habermas's theory is fundamentally correct. Having made that confession, though, I feel obliged to make it clear that I am conceiving of that word "fundamentally" at a level of abstraction that leaves room for a lot of attention to the details he passes over with big brush strokes. It's like he provides a map of the terrain that's good enough to know how to get where one's going, but too imprecise to determine what to do upon getting there.

Take this graphic with the two chocolate bunnies, for example. While it's easy to grasp in an immediate way that brings laughter, it also doubles as an earnest commentary on what one might term, with an eye towards Habermas, "actually existing communication." From this perspective, the joke's deeper truth would be to show that the sort of "communication oriented towards understanding" that Habermas theorizes may not be a real-world destination so much as a mirage, perpetually shimmering on the horizon but never getting any closer, not because we lack the desire to make the journey, but because we are too deformed to undertake it. In other words, the missing ass and ears of the two chocolate bunnies can be seen to represent the negative effects of social, political and economic forces that precede and exceed us.

If we fail to hear each other properly -- a technical distortion in communication, rather than the sort generated by asymmetries of power -- the problem may not be the sort that an engineer can solve. Who or what has bitten off the bunnies' parts? Is this simply an existential condition that is a sine qua non for all humanity? Or does the answer require that we attend both to the particular and universal constraints that conspire to do so much damage to the chocolate rabbits' integrity?

Personally, I think this graphic reminds us to pay attention to the forces that shape individual experiences and capacities irrespective of personal preference, as well as the ways in which the need to express the pain of perceived injuries can come to dominate interpersonal communication to our collective detriment. Perhaps what this humorous picture is really conveying is not that all attempts to engage in "communication oriented towards understanding" are bound to be hopelessly compromised from the get-go, but that it is impossible for us to communicate our lack to others, since what we are missing -- the ability, in a sense, to realize that others feel no more whole than we do -- is precisely what disables our understanding.