Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Colombia Winning the War on Drugs?

Colombia has long exported almost all the cocaine and much of the heroine bought in the US. This year's crops in the Colombia has decreased according to the UN and the US government. President has shared the credit with Washington. The US has given Bogota 2.5 billion dollars in aid, much of it military, since 2000.

A lot of Americans probably don't realize that Colombia is one of the largest recipients in the world of American aid. Colombia is destroying drugs. In one year Colombia has destroyed 70% of illegal drugs. Uribe says he no longer wants drugs in Colombia. "Whenever one American citizen consumes coca, cocaine, or poppy" says Uribe, "his consumption helps the traffickers, helps the terrorists."

"Terrorists" is Uribe's general reference to two opposing forces. More than 20,000 leftist guerrillas in Colombia - the main group is known by the Spanish acronym, FARC - and more than 15,000 armed right wing paramilitaries; they're involved in a complex brutal war that takes ten lives a day, mostly civilians. Both the FARC and to an even greater degree the paramilitary groups are said to be funded by the drug traders, and Uribe considers both groups a single enemy.

Uribe said in an interview with Ray Suarez:

"We have the challenge from terrorist groups against our people, against our democracy. There is a connection. Colombia has terrorists because Colombia has drugs. In the absence of drugs, we can defeat terrorists easily."

Now 51 years old, Alvaro Uribe comes from a family of wealthy landowners. He trained as a lawyer at Harvard and Oxford, then spent much of his career as an official in local and national government. Uribe won the presidency last year which a landslide and his approval ratings have remained in the 60s and 70s. Since taking office, Uribe rejected his predecessor's strategy of making concessions to the rebels and has taken a hard line even as editorial and other critics have denounced it as a "take no prisoners" approach.

Uribe's government has sent the army into FARC strongholds and made arrests; it's increased taxes in order to recruit more soldiers, and it's begun to reward civilian informants who identify guerrilla rebels in their midst. The US has sent military trainers and Special Forces to join the effort. In the Clinton years, American aid was only to be used against drugs, not fighting rebels. Last year the Bush administration and Congress erased the distinction and stepped directly into the war with hardware, training and troops. Secretary of State Colin Powell praised Uribe's efforts:

"I was impressed as he cataloged for the world, for the international community, all the successes that Colombia has had in the past year in reducing violence and destroying illicit crops throughout the country. And I was also impressed in his speech by his clear commitment to human rights in the prosecution of this war that he is fighting against terrorists and drug lords in Colombia."

At the White House and elsewhere this week, Uribe asked for continued US aid currently set to expire in 2005. But Uribe says he needs ongoing help to "kill the snake."

He says, "We have to insist, to persevere, because the snake is debilitated, is weakened, but the snake is still alive. My generation hasn't had a single day of peace. What I want for the new generation of Colombians is that they can live in a country happy, without the difficulties my generation has faced for all my life."

President Uribe's own father was killed in the violence, as well as millions of Columbias. Despite Uribe's campaign, the rebels remain active on several fronts. One is the practice of kidnapping. The FARC has taken scores of government officials and foreign nationals hostage, demanding money and prisoner exchanges. In August, a Colombian TV network aired footage of hostages, urging Uribe to cut a deal with the FARC rebels.

Uribe refuses to negotiate with the rebels and the hostages remain in captivity. The FARC also says it's captured three American civilians, the contractors were on a reconnaissance mission in February when their plane went down in rebel territory. The insurgents are also known for mass killings and bombings in civilian areas. The FARC began in the 1960s with Marxist leanings, but independent analysts say their aim now is simply to make the country ungovernable.Fast growing paramilitary militias mostly operate in rural areas. Like the leftist FARC, the right-wing paramilitaries are considered a terrorist group by the US State Department, but the Uribe administration has made some controversial overtures to them. The two sides declared a cease- fire in July, and Uribe has proposed a bill to give paramilitaries amnesty: Reduced jail terms in exchange for reparation payments to victims' families. Critics of the plan include US Congressman Tom Lantos. The California Democrat says amnesty would let human rights violators with drug ties off the hook.

As Lantos said, "There are some things on which we cannot compromise. The key drug lords cannot escape going to prison for long terms by paying cash to their victims. The government of this country must be aware of the fact that their credibility is at stake."

Uribe says amnesty will bring Colombia closer to what he calls "definitive peace." And he said paramilitary fighters do not receive special treatment in his government.

Uribe says, "Guerrillas and people from paramilitary groups, and they both are terrorist groups. Their actions are pure... are sheer terrorist. In the past when the army was not effective against guerrillas, many people in Colombia thought the army was in collusion with guerrillas; there are - there have been isolated cases, isolated cases of collusion with paramilitaries. But my government needs transparency."

Are some of the things that he's written about past associations, when Uribe was in government as a younger man, is there any truth to them?

Uribe says he cannot discuss the gossip of journalists. His country is determined to eliminate drugs in Colombia.

Folk Sociology: NYTimes Columnist David Brooks

David Brooks is a man of high intellectual well-roundedness, which makes his articles a pleasure to read. One thing I have noticed is that he usually ties in his "conservative cause" some way into his articles, some appeal to conservatives to become more like the "conservative" he is: intellectual, stoical, and politely satirical--something that some think only "liberals" are capable of doing. But I've also found that Brooks has often exaggerates and distorts differences between Red and Blue states, beating the old drum about "conservatives" and "liberals", to make his pop sociology even fizzier. I'm not sure what the vulgar fascination is with that dichotomy, but some columnists take it too far. They forget about the marginalized populations of academia whose views are too eclectic to be considered "red" or "blue".

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Crime and Punishment in Darfur

The UN Security Council voted last August to send a 20,000-strong international peacekeeping force to Darfur before the end of 2006. But Mr Bashir, President of Sudan, continues to resist the deployment of any troops under a UN hat (although UN peacekeepers have been for years in southern Sudan without any objection from Khartoum). One reason for this may be his fear that UN soldiers could be used to arrest ICC suspects and transfer them to the The Hague.

There are nevertheless worries in some quarters that, as in northern Uganda, the ICC is again putting justice before peace. Issuing indictments against those responsible for the Darfur atrocities could have “unintended consequences”, Andrew Natsios, America's special envoy to Sudan, warned earlier this month. War-crimes trials were not going to help the people in the refugee camps, he insisted. Others, however, argue that holding perpetrators to account is essential to deter future atrocities.

A successful prosecution on Darfur could provide a big boost to the fledgling international court’s credibility. It is the first time that it has had a case referred to it by the Security Council rather than by one of its own member states. Sudan is not a member. It is also the first time it has managed to get all the evidence it needs to bring charges without either the co-operation of the host government or being able to go into the area where the atrocities were committed. This should serve as a warning to other countries who have decided not to sign up to the court in the belief that it would protect them from prosecution.

UN Security Council Enlargement Issues

This Thursday I will be at a Model United Nations Conference, debating, and also filming for a short "docusoap" that I will work on when I have the time. Over the past couple of years I have been excited about being involved with debate and Model UN. This summer I'm going on a trip to an EU study abroad program. But I have become enamored with the United Nations. I can trace this back to the Oil for Food Scandal, which completely shocked me and took me off guard.

The greatest criticisms I have are reserved for the UN Security Council, the defining emblem of intrastate diplomacy. This impotent body of delegates has shown utter stupidity an inaction with regards to the Iranian Nuclear Programs crisis. Also, in Darfur, which the AU has recently taken up. Because each of the five permanent members of the Security Council have a veto, and because they often disagree, many times no action can be agreed upon. Just this last summer, during the Israel-Lebanon Crisis, no action has been taken to enforce the provisions of Resolution 1559 or 1701 to disarm non-governmental militias such as Hezbollah. These resolutions are meaningless, since when they are broken, the UN only stipulates indecisive and vague consequences.

Annan, when he was in office, devised a plan, called "In Larger Freedom", to increase the membership of the Security Council by 24 permanent and non-permanent seats. There is also talk of expanding these seats to more countries, the G4 countries: Japan, Germany, India and Brazil. The US is opposed to Germany and India entering, presumably because they did not support the 2003 Iraq Invasion. Condoleeza Rice welcomed Japanese membership because as she said, "Japan has earned its honorable place among the nations of the world by its own effort and its own character. That's why the United States unambiguously supports a permanent seat for Japan on the United Nations Security Council." Japan is also the second largest contributor the UN's regular budget--one reason why they have "earned an honorable place" in the UN. Colin Powell objected to Japan, and rightly so, because Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution forbids it from going to war, (which is allegedly what the Security Council is all about.) Article 9 was a clever move by the US government, which crafted that constitution after World War 2.

Germany. Germany is the 3rd largest contributor the UN's regular budget. So obviously it should have a spot on the Security Council. Jacque Chirac would like to see Germany in the Council. President Bush, thus, does not. Everything the French like, Americans dislike, it seems. Brazil is likewise one of the more economically prosperous countries in Latin America. Its membership is blocked by Argentina and Mexico, the next most influential countries in the region. Why is India a candidate? Perhaps because it has the world's second largest population. But perhaps even more because it has the world's second largest military force. Thus India is the UN's largest contributor of troops to UN-mandated peace-keeping missions.

Adding more members to the Security Council would be futile. A body that is already plagued with too many indecisive entities will be multiplied by 24 more indecisive entities. The goal is, of course, to make this body more democratic. But if that's the goal, then why not add every member state onto the Security Council? This would never happen because the 5 states with veto power are cautious to preserve their own power on the council by selecting carefully. This is why the United Nations is not, in fact, democratic. It only admits members onto prestigious committees, like the Security Council, who have demonstrated a certain kind of "honor" as Rice says. A better word to describe this process is "meritocracy", albeit here there is a particular kind of merit involved.

Why not admit an African country onto the Security Council? After all, Africa is the second-largest and second-most-populous continent behind Asia (in which China already has a seat and Japan and India are already petitioning). Africa also has more UN member states than any other continent. Africa, as a whole, is seen as militarily non-threatening. Sure it has internal problems. But unlike the Middle East, Africa is not seen as a major threat to outsiders. African problems are somehow less important to the G4 and G8 countries. Despite several G8 conferences regarding aid to Africa, it is consistently and systematically left out of party-talks. Why not admit a country like Nigeria, which has the largest African population, and played a leaeding part in fighting against South African apartheid? The Nigerian military for the past 50 years has been a peace-keeping force, aiding regions all across Africa in places like the Ivory Coast (1997-1999), Liberia (1997), Sierra Leone (1997-1999), and presently Sudan's Darfur region. Gay Marriage and sex is an imprisonable offense, and environmental degradation is horrid, however. Crimes, of course, unheard of in American culture.

Other enlargement possibilities include adding the EU as a veto-power, and absolving the seats of France and the UK. However, the EU is not a state so this would require either a change to the UN Charter or that the EU become a state.

The United States has expressed its views on the matter. According to the Department of State, which is known as the "foreign ministries" in other countries:

"The United States is open to UN Security Council reform and expansion, as one element of an overall agenda for UN reform. We advocate a criteria-based approach under which potential members must be supremely well qualified, based on factors such as: economic size, population, military capacity, commitment to democracy and human rights, financial contributions to the UN, contributions to UN peacekeeping, and record on counterterrorism and nonproliferation. We have to look, of course, at the overall geographic balance of the Council, but effectiveness remains the benchmark for any reform."

This comes from a department whose interests are to protect US business interests abroad, which I have no qualms with, (I think all bussiness interests should be protected) but I disagree with the way they go about doing it. The US advocates a "criteria-based" approach under which members that fit US criteria will be admitted to the UNSC. It's interesting that one of these criteria is a commitment to democracy. But as we can see it's not a commitment to democracy, but a commitment to meritocracy. The US has no respect for democracies necessarily. (Ahem, Haiti, for example.) Should we count the democracies it has pushed over in favor of more meritable candidates?

Economic size, sure; population size, sure. But what, really, is the criteria of the Department of State? It is an ideology similar to the United States. The US knows that countries with similar economic sizes and similar commitments to democracy are just more words that mean similar ideologies to the United States. In fact, ideology is underlying reason why any country is either favored or disfavored for membership into the UNSC. Japans is not popular with China because of ideological disputes. In late April 2005, large-scale anti-Japan protests broke out in mainland China and South Korea. The reasons for the protests are varied, including Japanese history books backed by the government, annual visits by former Prime Minister Koizumi to the Yasukini Shrine which houses 14 class-A war criminals, and territorial disputes of islands claimed by both China and Taiwan. Other Asian countries that support Japan are either big lenders to Japan or receive Japanes FDI.

No country, besides the US and Pakistan, is really against India's bid for the UNSC seat. That's obvious. Pakistan and India are still in a tiff over nuclear proliferation. India sees itself an ideological neutral wedge in world politics, beginning with Nehru's founding the Non-Aligned Movement in 50s. The US does not support India's bid for ambiguous reasons. Perhaps its too pacifist?

Monday, February 26, 2007

A Positive and Pragmatic Theory of Computation and Cognition

Early digital computers were frequently referred to as “electronic brains.” Able to perform complex mathematical calculations, play games and even write simple poetry, these machines clearly displayed characteristics previously thought to be the exclusive realm of human beings. Moreover, they did these feats with such rapidity that it seemed difficult not to imagine that with the verisimilitudinous progress of science our electronic brains would one day exceed our own rather limited cognitive abilities.

This paper argues that mind computationalism, properly understood, is an invaluable “research program” in our quest to understand cognition. The criteria we should select should say something to the effect that whatever yields the most successful predictive record will be our theory of mind. It will become obvious that all the alternative proposals are ultimately committed to the very same viewpoint. The point of view of the author is that brain processes are computational. To appreciate this, however, it is necessary to first develop a sketch of computation and of what a cognitive agent is and how it may function. This perspective will then provide the foundation upon which to sensibly discuss the meanings and relative merits of the various ideas. This approach is somewhat unusual, perhaps, but appropriate given the interrelated nature of the concepts being investigated. Ultimately, these notions simply cannot be understood in isolation, but only as a system, as a coherent philosophy of mind (indeed, a philosophy of everything.)

Computation is interpretable symbol manipulation. Symbols are objects that are manipulated on the basis of rules operating only on the symbols’ shapes , which are arbitrary in relation to what they can be interpreted as meaning. Even if one accepts the Church/Turing Thesis that computation is unique, universal and very near omnipotent, not everything is a computer, because not everything can be given a systematic interpretation; and certainly everything can’t be given every systematic interpretation.

Cognitive agents are usually described as small parts of the world in which they exist and are thus assumed to have limited abilities. Cognitive agents are agents that incorporate and use knowledge of the external world to improve their chances of survival. In order to cope with the vagaries of its world, an agent needs to select and execute the action most appropriate to its goals. A proper model of the mind is a (presumably) physical system that implements a computation capable of providing the necessary answers. The relation between cognition and computation is clear.

An agent’s model may be innate or it may be constructed (learnt) as a result of sensing and possibly interacting with the environment. It may be static or continuously refined, again as a result of interactions. Given such a model of the world, sensory input must somehow combine with it to determine actions relevant to the agent’s present situation and goal. Any discrepancy between the model's predictions and the subsequent sensory input will indicate errors in the model and can thus provide the basis for updating it.

Given the interpretations of computation and cognition outlined above, is computationalism, the view that cognition is a form of computation, correct? There are at least three ways to interpret this question, (1) Can cognition be described (simulated) by computations, (2) Is cognition literally computation, and (3) Does the notion of computation offer a suitable basis for understanding and explaining cognition.

Based on our analysis, the answer to the first form of the question, “Can cognition be described by computations?” would seem to be, “Yes.” Clearly, we can construct computational simulations of cognition at various levels; the question though, presumably, refers to description at the “lowest” physical-level (if there is any sense to this notion.) Assuming that the mind/brain has a purely physical basis (i.e. no part of it –the soul, perhaps—would continue to exist were its material components to be destroyed) then, since a program or computation is simply a description of a causal system, answering the question in the affirmative requires another physical system having equivalent causal dynamics that we can utilize as the model. This is an empirical problem.

The second form of the question, “Is cognition literally computation?” cannot be answered quite so easily. Computation is certainly part of cognition (specifically, the agent’s model of the environment.) But what of the other elements, the input and output pathways linking the model to the external world, the goals, the matching and decision-making mechanism, etc., are they also computational? It would seem that if they are physical/causal systems, then, presumably, they too can be interpreted computationally, in which case we should also accept that cognition is quite literally a matter of implementing the right form of computational system. John Searle uses intentionality to distinguish here the goals of computational devices from human mental processes. The computational device may be able to say the word “tree,” but it will never be about an actual tree. This is misleading, and Searle’s response to the “mansion reply” is likewise misleading, since it assumes a very uninventive posture regarding what emergent technologies are capable of. Further replies by Dennett regarding our intuitions should not even be considered since Dennett pumps intuitions in a positive way to describe other thought experiments.

The final interpretation, “Does the notion of computation fail to have explanatory value when it comes to understanding cognition?” is of more immediate concern to cognitive science and artificial intelligence researchers. The case against computational theories of the mind have been growing stronger with claims to the effect that computation lacks semantics, is disembodied, is insensitive to real-world timing constraints, is at the wrong level, and, most dramatically, that since every system can compute every function, it is just too pervasive to be meaningful.

Clearly, computation is important from a practical perspective and also, perhaps, from a historical one. The case against the computational view of mind is misguided. While every system can indeed be viewed as implementing some computation, every system simply cannot implement every computation. Moreover, the fact that computation lacks certain elements of mind, such as semantics, is not important, since our objective must be to explain how these features arise. If computation did possess them it certainly could not provide any basis for understanding them. Further, the notion of a computational model is clearly central to the cognitive process and, at least in the case of semantics, it would appear that we can actually develop explanations in these terms. AI researchers first suggested that symbols and mental states gained their “meaning” from other representations. Searle’s (1980) infamous Chinese Room Argument was the first nail in the coffin of this idea, in which a computer could run the steps of the program without understanding a word of Chinese. Since each word is defined in terms of other words, such that, unless someone provides the meanings for a few primitive words, there is no hope of understanding anything.

Given the analysis of cognition in terms of models, the solution is basically straightforward. A representation (state) has meaning for the agent just in case it has predictive value. On relevant occasions the symbol might be activated via causal connections with the external world, indicating that the particular feature it represents is present. On other occasions it may become active as a consequence of the execution of the model and thus constitute a prediction. It may not even have a real-world counterpart, but simply be part of a theory (model), which provides answers in the absence of anything better. It is not, of course, necessary that the predictions always be correct in order for the state to be counted as a meaningful representation. Neither is it necessary that the agent ever display behavior based on the representation.

An agent’s model of its world might be viewed as a formal system comprising symbols and inference rules. A number of questions thus arise, first, and foremost of which concerns the origin of these symbols and rules. Are they, perhaps, innate, or does the agent somehow select an appropriate set of symbols? Acquiring (and maintaining) a suitable set of base symbols for a given external world is likely to be one of the primary determinants of success or failure for an agent.

How then, might an agent “discover” the symbols it needs? An outline answer might go something like this. Agents have a number of sensors and “actuators” (1). The problem for any agent is to decide which actuator (if any) to invoke at any particular moment. Its objective is to satisfy its needs (food, sex, comfort, etc.) In some cases evolution may have endowed it with automatic (innate) mechanisms that restore it to its “ideal” state. In other situations, however, it will need to instigate “deliberate” actions in the hope of achieving these goals. On the (necessary) assumption that there is some regularity in the environment (and lacking any other prior knowledge), the best an agent can do is to store past sensory input patterns and then match the current situation against these in the hope that they might repeat. The matching process will thus produce a set of expectations, and assuming that the agent has also stored information about its past actions and their effects, it should then be able to compute the “intersection” between these, its perceived situation and its goals, and hence select the most appropriate action to take.

Given the variation in input patterns, the initial problem is to identify sets of sensor inputs that regularly occur together. Having isolated these initial sets, the agent can further group them into less frequently occurring sets, and so on. Gradually, it should also be able to determine combinations of these sets that are mutually exclusive of each other (by observing that they share terms, for example.) All of these groupings form the agent’s (internal) symbols. Another set of symbols (external ones) is formed when the agent acquires language. Meaning in these symbols involves an additional mapping from the external word itself to the representation of the corresponding concept, to espouse a commonsense “correspondence theory” about truth.

As for the inference rules, they must be logical—since the agent must make the correct, rational, “logical” choices. We can thus expect logical rules to be part of an agent’s makeup, i.e. in biological agents, evolution will have produced and favored mechanisms which behave as if they were performing logical inferences. Classical logic, being the result of abstraction from our spoken language, is evidence for this, although, of course, it does not account for all our observed reasoning. Certainly, human beings frequently fail to reason perfectly (perhaps due to biological limitations, lack of time, incorrect or incomplete knowledge, etc.), but the fact remains that an agent’s mechanism must be inherently logical.

So, assuming that they are both capable of supporting the necessary computational structures, the choice is an organizational one and cognitive agents could equally well employ either. Of course, there may be other reasons to prefer one form to the other. It may be that one is easier to implement in a particular technology; silicon or incorporated biological processes. Or that it requires less hardware or works more reliably. Building a cybernetic organism by using brain tissue where it is necessary, and wires or silicon where it necessary is an attractive prerogative for computationalist theorists.

Does computation, an abstract notion lacking semantics and real-world interaction, offer a suitable basis for explaining cognition? The answer would appear to be, “Yes,” indeed, it would seem to offer the only possible explanation.

The basic argument of this paper is as follows. Models enable us to make predictions. Constructing a model requires building a physical “device” whose states and dynamics map onto those of the target system. A convenient way to do this is to write a program that can be executed on a digital computer. The program, and the computation it defines, is thus an abstract specification of the desired causal system. To maximize their chances of success, cognitive agents need to make predictions about their external world. It therefore seems reasonable to assume that their architecture must include a model that can be used to make such predictions. This model can be described and interpreted in computational terms, so computationalism must offer an appropriate basis for explanation.

While behaviorists and dynamicists claim to offer alternative models, it is clear that these relate to organizational concerns and thus do not deflect the essential computational explanation, for they too are computations. The argument put forward by roboticists, psychologists and social theorists, that intelligence or representation demands situated interaction, would appear to be essentially correct on the analysis presented here. A state is representational only on the basis of its predictive value to the agent. From the computational viewpoint this is perfectly natural and answers the question of semantics. Finally, the philosophical argument, which claims to show that computation is a potentially vacuous concept, was seen to be misleading. Mapping every computation to every system is simply not possible because the proper causal structure is lacking. Computation is about prediction and while it is possible to map any specific computational sequence onto (almost) any physical system, there is little predictive value in doing this. Computationalism, in the end, stands as a viable theory and many of its attractive features such as multiple realizability and practicality appeal to AI researchers and cognitive scientists.


Chalmers, D.J. (1995). Absent qualia, fading qualia, dancing qualia. In (T. Metzinger, ed) Conscious Experience. Ferdinand Schoningh.

Chalmers, D.J. (1996a). Does a rock implement every finite-state automaton? Synthese.

Chalmers, D.J. (1996b). The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory. Oxford University Press.

Harnad, S. 1989. Minds, machines and Searle. Journal of Experimental and Theoretical Artificial Intelligence 1:5-25.

Kim, J. 2006. Philosophy of Mind 2e. The “Chinese Room” Experiment. Westview Press. P. 145

Searle, J.R. 1990. Is the brain a digital computer? Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 64:21-37.

Searle, J.R. 1991. Minds, Brains, and Programs? The Nature of Mind. Edited by David Rosenthal. P. 509

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Derrida Deconstructing the Phaedrus

Derrida’s strategy in Plato’s Pharmacy is to show that by giving speech more power than writing, Plato ends up using rhetorical tools and devices from writing to give power to speech, and thus to stand the primacy of writing on its head.

Derrida calls Plato’s writing style “pharmakon”, which Socrates mentions in the Phaedrus, in a passage where Socrates is discussing Egyptian gods’ views on writing. This passage was already complex given that it depends on the interpretations of Socrates’ Egyptian metaphors combined with the instruction in context of the rest of the dialogue. Derrida’s strategy with Nietzsche was to say that woman had three wholly different meanings to him. Pharmakon has three wholly different meanings to Plato as well: “curative medicine,” “poison,” and “undecidable.” Pharmakon, he tells us, is caught in a chain of significations. The two interlocutors “remain within the unity of the same signifier.” Their discourse plays with it. Derrida suggests that the translator citing only one of the possible meanings is itself an effect of Platonism: “Platonic text” is the idea that a text has one true, correct interpretation. This is “absolutely heterogenous,” says Derrida, and is constantly “composing” with the forces that will eventually destroy it.

Derrida shows that Socrates’s dependence on the notion of logos as “father” is very regressive. But then he adds that its regressivity is not the real problem. It depends on a transcendental signified, but more importantly, the metaphor of logos being indebted to a father carries with it an inherent relatedness to logos. The father cannot be assigned a “fixed spot” because he is too many things at once. “The god of writing,” he says, is a “floating signifier, a wild card, one who puts play into play.”

Plato at one point of deference chooses a logic that does not use the word pharmakon in differing senses of the word. Derrida says that this would lead to a dialetic of opposites. But later, Plato tries to define pharmakon through the King Theuth, and it turns out the definition is very black and white. Derrida implies that this is an appeal to authority. Plato is using the king to show a “play of appearances” which enable to pass as an essence or something like it. Derrida then judges Plato by standards used in other dialogues concerning good ambiguity and bad ambiguity. Where, in the Phaedrus, I’m not clear what kind of ambiguity Plato is employing. Derrida says that some of ambiguity is found in the oppositions being “external” to one another.

In the last part of the chapter, Derrida focuses on Plato’s theory of memory. For Plato, learning is to remember what is known in one’s soul. However, Derrida interprets a passage of Plato to be attacking the substitution of memory in a device (like text) for live memory. The memories are finite, which Plato knows, but Plato dreams of a memory with no sign. This is difficult to interpret. However, what I think Derrida is getting at is that Plato would like to have a mnemonic system that is both living in the person, i.e. live memory not declaratory text, but it doesn’t need a phonic signifier. Because writing has no effect on memory, it puts the reader to sleep, and its rigorously exterior, Plato wants both external memory and internal memory at the same time. This is why Plato writes in dialogue form, as if people are literally talking, but in fact it is writing. But he can’t have both.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Anthem For Doomed Youth

This is a poem by Wilfred Owen, which employs a traditional form of the sonnet. Much of the imagery suggests Christian funeral rituals and the poem moves from infernal noise to mournful silence.

It was written in 1917, when Owen was a patient at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, recovering from shell shock. The poem itself is a lament for young soldiers whose lives were unnecessarily lost in World War I. At the hospital, Owen met and became close friends with another poet, Siegfried Sassoon, and asked for his assistance in polishing his rough drafts. It was Sassoon who named it 'Anthem', and who substituted 'Doomed' for 'Dead'; the famous epithet of "patient minds" is also a correction of his. The amended manuscript copy, in both men's handwriting, still exists, and may be found at the Wilfred Owen Manuscript Archive online.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Derrida's Theory of Writing

Derrida’s theory of writing, although couched in complex wording and phraseology, has a relatively simple project: to show that texts are inherently contradictory by demonstrating that its false dichotomies and other exaggerations distort and falsify reality from a certain perspective. His theory about the problem of reading is necessarily about this. When reading the texts of Heidegger and Saussure, as well as when they are writing texts, readers and writers tend to focus and dwell, and exaggerate in our minds, the points the other is making. This doubly an exaggeration since the text itself has done the same thing to itself.

In reading excerpts from his essay Of Grammatologie and Differance, one difficulty is that there are so many points he is making and so many possible points to “deconstruct” Derrida’s writings themselves. But to have one suggestion will open an entire field of investigation into his own texts, which, to do that one must have already bought into the project of deconstructing, and thus the problem of reading too much into his writing becomes problematic. “All dualisms…as well as monisms… are the unique theme of a metaphysics whose entire history was compelled to strive forward the reduction of the trace.” So how is a grammatology of interpreting texts even possible?

The “trace” is a word Derrida uses to describe the origin of some kind of primitive state of writing. It is no more “an effect than it is a cause.” That is to say, it’s a false dichotomy in some sense. But even “false” and “dichotomy” fail to capture the essence of what Derrida means. He says that “trace” is “nothing”. It is not an entity, a res, and exceeds the question, “What is?” Here we may no longer even trust the distinction between fact and principle, we are told. It has its own unity, without our interpretations he seems to suggest, and we must not disturb it. Somehow, we are supposed to let the original unity of thought to presence itself, without letting it give rise to confusion.

Non-linear writing, he says, is nearly the entire history of writing before Nietzsche. Linear thought is a reduction of history, just one way that this style of writing exaggerates reality. We can see how Nietzsche’s monologue style of writing would be preferred, since it is more faithful to exposing the prejudice of linear-writing. Monologues are part of the “de-sedimenting” of linear-writing. We are re-reading the past according to a “different organization of space.” Science, it must be noted, is inherently linear, stuffy, and prejudiced. Scientific writing has its own “onto-theology” and its style of writing itself says a great deal about how it views reality. This incompetence of science is likewise an incompetence of philosophy. Derrida says, “Because we are beginning write differently, we must begin to re-read differently.” Science, like declarative and omni-expounding writing styles, is thus an “infinitst theology,” which are “always logocentric.” The suggestion is that scientific-writing would be more faithful to reality if it were more ”Nietzschean”, although Derrida does not explicitly say this. And Derrida is calling for an end to these more false styles of writing, which is why he uses apocalyptic words like “eschatological” and so on.

This linearist concept of time, which abandons a certain metaphysics of presence, is therefore one of the deepest adherences of the modem concept of the sign to its own history. For at the limit it is indeed the concept of the sign itself, and the distinction, however tenuous, between the signifying and signified faces, that remain committed to the history of classical ontology. The parallelism and correspondence of the faces or the planes change nothing.

Derrida encourages us, when we feel this way about a text, to have a kind of Nietzschean laughter or Heideggerian hope. He seems to suggest a ‘let’s dance’ attitude about the platitudinous aspect about a text.