The Rhetorical Which

Should we maximise our capabilities, based on our limits?

Or maximise our limits, based on our capabilities?

As to the basic message, here, I actually don’t see too much hair-splitting. Both are aimed at action constrained by circumstance. The difference, I think a lot of people would propose, is the optimism or pessimism found between the two phrases although, even saying that, I think we blend within ourselves attitudes from both.

As for me, I feel more given to the second phrase, maximising our limits based on our capabilities, for its seeming more empirical, more driven by circumstance. Let’s take stock of our resources, and get on with it. Limits that exist will obviously present themselves as obstacles or else, well, they wouldn’t exist. And not only can those limits be reached, maybe they can even be stretched or overcome. This then becomes the task, and thank goodness for capabilities – and there’s the blending. Even empiricists have that esoteric side.

In the first phrase, similarly, something must exist – capabilities – or else they wouldn’t exist! So they must be maximisible (a word I just invented) in a way that hasn’t yet been, well, maximised. The first phrase is all about potential, what could be, if we just find a way to maximise our capabilities. Fist pump, exclamation point. In the culture I’m most familiar with, I suspect people – at least initially – would consider this first phrase a kind of optimism.

Okay, maybe not, since its basis is limitation, and that hardly sounds all warm and cozy. Still… in the first phrase, limits are a mystery to be solved, a challenge to overcome, an adventure: you can do or be anything you want, if you just believe in things. Set some goals, too, obviously – you can’t just go through life living on hope alone. Maybe I’m giving myself away; remember, I feel more given to the second phrase.

If the first phrase is optimism, the second could only be blunt, blanketing, clinical pessimism. But, like I said, I think we tend to blend, and I know I seldom feel satisfied with polarised options. So, even feeling more given to the second phrase, I won’t call myself a pessimist or even lean in that direction. And, yes, that means I won’t call myself an optimist either. Regardless, as I feel more given to the second phrase, I feel good about it for a couple reasons… relying on my capabilities means I have them and can use them, exclamation point, which means my limits can be pushed and stretched and even overcome. Fist pump! In neither phrase is there any lack of opportunity. In fact, each leaves room for the other.

For me, optimism and pessimism aren’t found in phrasing. Sure, we can play with words and come up with ways to objectify our capabilities or our limits. We can arrange syntax a certain way and suggest some interpretations, as I’ve just been doing. But, like I said, the basic message in both phrases is simply action constrained by circumstance. Attitude, tone – these are traits, and traits we find in people. Words describe, and tools are helpful. But it’s people who do the living.

Life has got to be about the verb.

Gettin' Busy Livin'.png

Here’s Why. Here’s Precisely Why.

To all my students, and to whomever else wondered what and WHY I taught the stuff I did…

Has the unfolding story involving Cambridge Analytica and Facebook got you considering whether or not to keep your Facebook account?

The details of this story illustrate precisely why our coursework took direct aim at raising the level of discourse.

What is the story? In a nutshell, Facebook permitted C.A. wide access to its users’ private data, without their consent. Authorities now suspect that C.A. used the data to affect political influence in various countries around the world, specifically by way of on-line advertisements and news stories, both factual and contrived. People were fed information tailored to appeal to them and thereby challenged to discern the factual from the fictional.

Here are a sampling of reports about the story and its fallout, some of which has been severe.

 


The Story

The Guardian

Vox

The Global Significance

BBC News

Fox News

Fox News: Opinion

Al Jazeera: Opinion

CBC News: Opinion

CNN: Opinion


 

Raising the level of discourse is all about discerning and appreciating peoples’ motives, thereby helping to determine what people are after, in order to understand why they do what they do.

To my students, I am confident that our coursework has prepared you to face the kind of cognitive assault launched by C.A. on people across the world. For my part, I’m comfortable keeping my Facebook account open… for the time being, anyway!

To everybody else, yes, absolutely this post is a plug for raising the level of discourse, an approach I encourage all of you to consider.

Read more about my own general take on Facebook here.

The Latest Visual WHY

Click here to read the latest Visual Why.

Jean-Baptiste Regnault - Socrates Tears Alcibiades from the Embrace of Sensual Pleasure (1791)
“…could we ever know what art makes oneself better, if we were ignorant of what we are ourselves?”

“…a picture’s usually worth even more than the thousand words we commonly ascribe.”

The word “text” derives from Latin, texere, meaning to weave or fit together. For me, text connotes far more than just the printed word – photography, movies, music, sculpture, architecture, the list goes on and on. The Visual WHY offers a specific look at paintings, texts with no less substance and arguably far more aesthetic. But underpinning the textuality of art altogether is its human endeavour. And beyond weaving something together for the sake of weaving, weavers – artists, people – have a further end, communication. Artists across all media are still people with influences and motives for expressing themselves. Conjointly, texts of all kinds are plenty human: provocative and reflective. Whether rich and symbolic for a global audience, or doodled sketches for your own amusement, art is text, and text has purpose. As we try to understand it more thoroughly, we can’t help but raise the level of discourse. Who knows, someday maybe art will save the world…

For those who’ve been wondering about the painting featured both here and on this site’s front page, this latest update will explain that, too.

Click here to read the latest Visual Why.

Catch-22: A Masterpiece by Joseph Heller

WARNING! This post is an analysis and celebration of Joseph Heller’s novel, Catch-22, and it DOES contain PLOT SPOILERS. If you wish to read the novel for the first time, do not read this post.

“Give the first twelve chapters a chance” has long been my advice to anyone who asks about Catch-22, Joseph Heller’s modernist masterpiece that critiques the absurdity of the military during wartime. If you haven’t read the book, I will hardly spoil things by explaining how eagerly we witless first-timers set out to read such a lauded modern classic, only to be confronted by what might be the most frustrating paragon of show-versus-tell in existence. (However, I will be discussing spoiler details from here on, so be warned.) From the seemingly disparate chapter titles to the disjointed narrative, which repeatedly folds back upon itself, from a maddeningly mirthful plot device, which tempts you to toss the book aside and deny its existence, to an irresolute closing – if you make it that far – the book continually challenges readers to deduce what’s happening and piece together what’s happened. Toss in what seems like an endless cadre of characters, ranging from odder to oddest to perhaps not so odd, the book is a challenge, no question.

For seven years, I assigned this book as summer reading for returning seniors. Oh, how the students complained about those twelve chapters – excessive! pointless! irritating! – only to feel more aggrieved at hearing, “Exactly,” my necessary reply. Once the venting subsided – usually at least half the first lesson – we’d begin discussing why Heller’s book could only be written this way as compared to some more conventional, accessible way.

For one thing, we need to meet the protagonist, Yossarian, and understand his circumstances so that, at appropriate upcoming times, which of course will have already occurred, we won’t criticise but will instead favour him. To this end, the entire story is told out-of-sequence, opening apparently in media res during Yossarian’s hospital stay. We have character introductions and letter censoring, foreshadowing how words and language will be manipulated while characters will be isolated, alienated, and demeaned. Subsequently, we learn the logic of Catch-22 from Doc Daneeka. And that Snowden dies. If we’ve navigated the twelve opening chapters and lived to tell about it, we learn that Yossarian, originally a young, excited airman, once needed two passes over a target in order to bomb it successfully, which gets his crewmember, Kraft, killed. Yossarian is further distressed upon returning when he receives a medal for the mission. Meanwhile, Milo opens his syndicate. The tension of tedium, the injustice of fortune. The folly of command, the depravity of humankind. Capping the story is the gruesome account of Snowden’s death, the key incident that incites Yossarian’s fear and lands him in hospital, where we first meet him – naturally, Heller waits until the end to tell us the beginning.

Heller writes with an absurd, illogical narrative style that characterises Yossarian’s internal eternal predicament, wending its way through isolation, alienation, discord, misery, paranoia, fear, senselessness, deception, vice, cruelty, even rape and murder. Catch-22 being what it is, its victims have zero-chance to overcome because the antagonists are permitted to do whatever the protagonists are unable to prevent. All along the way, Heller has Yossarian wanting out of the military (fly no missions = live), and he continually ups the ante between Yossarian and all the disturbing confrontations and contradictions that antagonise him, from his enemies and his commanders to his acquaintances and his comrades. But ultimately, and most potently, he has Yossarian suffering from his own self-interest. As the narrative flits and tumbles about, in its own progressive way, Yossarian’s self-interest evolves or, better to say, devolves. What does evolve, inversely to self-interest, is his compassion as he gradually grows more concerned for the men in his squadron, and which by Chapter 40, “Catch-22,” has extended to all innocent people beset by oppression, prejudice, and exploitation. So when Colonel Cathcart’s promised deal to send him home safely, definitely, comes ironically (fittingly!) at the expense of the squadron, Yossarian ultimately recovers enough self-reliance to overcome his personal anguish but not enough to remand himself to the cycle of absurdity. Given Heller’s dispersed timeline, describing Yossarian’s character development as a narrative arc or an evolution is less accurate than the piecing together of a jigsaw or the unveiling of a secret.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Yossarian’s instinct for self-preservation is the source of his personal torment. His despondency and disgust over the preponderance of all human self-interest finally turn Yossarian’s decision to go AWOL, at criminal risk but personal safety. That such a climax works is because readers – like Yossarian – are no longer fighting back but giving in, yet even then Heller offers no respite – the story ends ambiguously, leaving readers to satisfy their own vexation. Even so, I suspect that Heller appreciated John Chancellor’s life-imitating-art intiative as one inspired by more than a spirit of fandom. So where some characters have been subjects of compassion, others agents of absurdity, readers’ resultant responses have also undergone a perfectly natural evolution, mirroring Yossarian’s character development and culminating with his terrifying walk through Rome. The horrors of “The Eternal City,” in this light, are not only an essential but an inevitable piece in Heller’s plan.

Yossarian’s shall-we-say militant decision to desert is borne of Snowden’s ugly death during the Avignon mission, only a week after the death of Kraft and the award of Yossarian’s medal. Seeing Snowden’s innards spilling rudely from his body nauseates Yossarian and haunts him throughout the entire (or, from Yossarian’s perspective, for the rest of) the story. Yossarian, inset by Heller on behalf of soldiers as a protagonist, has no way of making things better. His futile effort at comfort, “There, there” (p. 166), is comically insincere for its honest helplessness, an understated shriek from all soldiers continually sent to face death – not death without context but without resonance. However, for Yossarian and his comrades, the context of sacrifice is all too irrationally clear: thanks very much. Catch-22. Soldiers face the dilemma of following orders that entirely devalue their very existence.

Participation as a soldier offends Yossarian to the core, yet it also helps him to reconcile his fear over death: “… man is matter,” finite, mortal and – without spirit – simply “garbage.” In fact, this sentence sums human worth as a blunt statement: “The spirit gone, man is garbage” (p. 440). Six words of sad, harsh consequence, war, no longer wearing a comic mask. The absolute phrase, a terse syntactical effect, annuls man’s significance – spirited briefly, gone abruptly, an empty corporeal body left over, garbage. Garbage is a harsh image – rotting flesh, buzzing flies, scum, residue, stench. Pessimism, cynicism, worthlessness. On such terms, one wonders whether anyone might willingly die to save themselves, as it were, another troubling revelation engineered by a masterpiece of unprosaic illogic. Yet even on this point, Heller’s genius is flawless. Haunting though it is, Snowden’s death gradually reveals to Yossarian the very path to life and safety that he has pursued ever since the opening chapter in the hospital – which is to say, ever since Snowden’s death drove him there in the first place.

This is why Heller refers to Snowden’s death, specifically his entrails, as a “secret” because to reveal it any earlier would be to end the novel. And he calls it Snowden’s “grim secret” to illustrate Yossarian’s suppressed mental anguish. Heller has Yossarian recall Snowden a number of times, each admitting more detail, each growing more vivid, each driving him a little closer to his final resolution. Heller’s portrayal of Yossarian’s traumatised memories in this way suggests the nightmarish flashbacks that people, particularly soldiers, endure following the horrors of war. His final flashback in Chapter 41, “Snowden”, is prompted when Yossarian wards off the mysterious stranger in – where else? – the hospital. It’s most revelatory for Yossarian – and readers, by extension – because, here at the end of his patchy, appalling flashbacks, he is finally secure enough to divine for himself – or is it to admit to us? – the grim secret found in Snowden’s entrails. In the same way, the climax is most revelatory for readers who – at the mercy of Heller’s dispersed narrative structure – have been made to wait until the closing, when the time is finally ripe.

To get there, we are dragged unwittingly by Heller down a path of frustrating sympathy, illogical absurdity, and agonising anticipation. By the time Yossarian is introduced (in the opening chapter!) censoring letters and conniving a way to escape the war, he is that much nearer to desertion than we can yet know. Certainly, Snowden will convince us to desert as surely as he convinces Yossarian, but that will happen later, after Heller has aggravated our tolerance and mottled our innocence. Heller must drag us down Yossarian’s agonising path, or else he places us at risk of passing premature judgment upon not merely his protagonist but his entire message. Finally, when the moment arrives that we gather full appreciation of Snowden’s death, we have all we need to share in the vindication of Yossarian’s desertion.

So here is our way to grasp the grim secret behind the novel’s dissembling structure as restlessly and imperturbably as Yossarian does: the root of conflict, Snowden’s death, can only occur at the end of Heller’s narrative path, not Yossarian’s. The story simply works no other way.