Monday, May 09, 2005


I had been working on a program that would automatically translate the conventional language of discourse by way of grammatical transformations into a language that would incorporate relativism into its framework. I abandoned one promising approach based on scare quotes, which led to an infinite regress of quotation marks surrounding other quotation marks surrounding... Nearly blew my system. A second effort based on suspending the law of non-contradiction worked really well, and didn't work at all. A third, based on formal logic, whirred its gears and grunted and sweated for a very long time, before bringing forth the phrase in the title above. I think it's a line from Samuel Beckett, so I'm not sure whether I succeeded or not. I guess it depends on your point of view.

Backstory: Read this. Read it now. Read it all. I'm not kidding. Do it.

I was only kidding. There's a good summary at The League of David. Read it instead.

As a manly, no-bullshit, in-your-face-muggerflutter relativist, I'm sick to death of spineless, equivocating, nancy-boy relativism of the sort espoused by Ms. O'Brien: "The universe is a mass of arbitrary phenomena varying according to the viewpoint of the observer, and for godsake wipe your feet before you come in." Oooh la la. Sor. Ree.

I've taken the liberty of parsing one of Ms. O'Brien's passages (well, part of it) according to the tenets of the strong (I won't say "absolute") relativism she claims to embrace. Here's the passage:

I understand that all over the world there are Catholic women who are denied birth control because some old guy in the Vatican interprets a 3,000+-year-old passage in Jewish scripture to mean that God doesn’t want people to have sex without the possibility of procreation. And for this reason women’s bodies and minds are depleted by too many pregnancies and too many children. Is this not a “dictatorship of absolutism”? If AIDS spreads through Africa because the Church discourages condoms, is this not a “dictatorship of absolutism”?

I understand... Well, granted for the sake of argument that "I" and "understand" can be conceded on pragmatic grounds to have a meaningful status (despite the fact that the nation seethes with skeptical undergraduates who harbor quite serious doubts about the definitions and functions of these very terms), the best we can say in a non-absolutist sense is that she does and does not understand. This is because, firstly, she does not specify which precise gradation of "understanding" she is hypothesizing (metaphorically speaking, she does not indicate to what "time" her "watch" is "set" -- or even indicate why we should assume that any single "time" is valid); because, secondly, she cannot possibly understand anything other than what is understood by her and her alone (by definition), which renders any further conjectures purely tautological; and because, thirdly, in privileging the subject "I," she is implicitly constructing an epistemological hegemony which reduces other, equally valid, viewpoints, to a status of innate inferiority. She should shut up right now, but no.

All over the world... ALL over? How can she know without bestowing upon her own subjectivity a privileged status? THE world? Come on now. WHICH "world"? A chair-sitter's world? A peeing dog's world?

Catholic women... I do not have to argue at this point that the obsolescent term "women" is a socially constructed artifact that reflects power relations more than any "real" object of knowledge. Similarly with the term "Catholic," which is an arbitrary term that, by implicitly dividing persons into "Catholic" and "non-Catholic," promotes artificial divisiveness and false consciousness, but which is devoid of objective reference. The term "Catholic women" is, hence, doubly nonsensical. Ms. O'Brien should take a pill and lie down.

Are denied... Why the use of the passive voice, other than as a tool to deprive supposed females of the existential freedom arising from the random nature of the universe? Does Ms. O'Brien argue that they are constitutionally unable to make the autonomous choice to deny for themselves? The argument begins to look cravenly sexist (in addition to implicitly fascistic.)

Birth control... She hopes to sneak this insidious usage by us, knowing full well that it is logically empty. We cannot possibly refute each and every feeble and unwarranted assumption surreptitiously slipped into this phrase, but I feel duty-bound to point out a few of the most egregious. Firstly, there is the blithe implication that the biocentric expulsive procedure dominated by "doctors" and other elite groups who have a vested economic interest in medicalizing and maintaining these conventions actually reflects any significant coming-in-to-being process that results in individual consciousness. Surely, such views entail pro-life fanaticism -- which I suppose is quite to be expected given Ms. O'Brien's sexist dogmatism (see "are denied.") Secondly, the word "control" pointedly evades the critical Marxist-Leninist question of "Who whom?", thus segregating from consideration any question of power relations. Thirdly, she has not demonstrated any causal connection between this coming-into-being and this spontaneously generated notion of "control." Fourthly, I am well aware that "birth control" is a widely used euphemism for such reified commodities of the medico-pharmaceutical industry as The Pill, The Condom, The Abortion, etc. Why we should privilege such methods over equally valid ones such as the use of sexual unattractiveness, the treatment of individuals as non-objects, the non-objectification of the self as a mere progenitory agent, and alternative cultural views that hold sexual behaviors and "birth" to be unrelated, Ms. O'Brien does not clarify. Nor dare she.

Old guy... Flagrant ageism here. Are we surprised? Also, the misleading use of the term "guy" to artificially designate a person as defined by gender, which as we have seen is socially constructed. What precisely have such phantasmagoria of mass mystification to do with whatever actual contentions lurk in this opaque prose puddle?

In the Vatican... Apart from basic ontological difficulties common to all language, I can find nothing to object to in these three words, and am tempted to allow them to stand unchallenged. Not that I don't suspect an exploitative agenda, but it does not seem especially invidious here. (Purists might stipulate "a" -- rather than "the" -- Vatican, because, e.g., a dog troubled by a full bladder might view it differently. Granted. Not critical to "the" "argument," however.)

Interprets... Obviously subject to the same limitations as "understand" outlined above, but with the proviso that Ms. O'Brien's "understanding" subsumes this usage of "interpretation," such that the interpretation is modified by her understanding of it which, as we have seen, is not an especially meaningful assertion to begin with. At least she has spared us her feelings about her understanding of an interpretation.

A 3000-year-old passage... If, as in Ms. O'Brien's brilliant illustration, no watch can be set to an absolute time, similarly any assertion of longterm linear temporality must be relative to the calendar used, as well as to the viewpoint of the observer of the calendar. Doubtless, Ms. O'Brien would be happy to convey her understanding of an interpretation of this phrase, but until such can be conveyed in a clear analytic manner we are forced to dismiss this as dogmatic drivel. And I am not sure I understand the word "passage" in its multiplicity of connotations in this context.

Is this not... like taking candy from a baby?

Deconstructing Ms. O'Brien's paragraph has proved to be quite an onerous task, and I must suspend my critical efforts at this point, although I will endeavor to set aside twelve hours per day tomorrow and for each day thereafter until this vital task is completed. Maybe not. Clearly, there is no clock in this house which is "correct," so "twelve hours" is up for grabs, as is "tomorrow," for that matter. Maybe I'll just take it easy and try to get out a bit more; some other people I've discussed here today might consider doing the same, though I won't mention any names.