Sunday, August 31, 2014

Yo, Phaedrus

2nd century CE fragment [Wikipedia]
Planning a grad seminar discussion about Plato's Phaedrus, and I figured it was about time for another Pseudo Script...

Socrates: S’up?

Phaedrus: Stuffed. Just gobbled up some “food for thought,” prepared by master rhetorician Lysias: A chef of the mind, that guy is.

Socrates: Your belly full, is it?

Phaedrus: Oh that delightful Socratic sarcasm.

Socrates: OK, seriously, tell me about this “meal” of yours.

Phaedrus: Well, it was about how a “non-lover” is better than a “lover.” Juicy, huh?

Socrates: I’m guessing Lysias also agrees that short, fat, bald guys are more attractive than tall, thin, hairy dudes, too, right? Then he may be onto something. So, give me a sample.

Phaedrus: Can’t do it, dude. There’s no way I could cook up a semblance of what Lysias laid down.

Socrates: Yeah, like you haven’t been practicing all morning, just hoping I’d walk by so you could show off.

Phaedrus: Well… But I don’t have any of Lysias’ actual words memorized. They were too mind-blowing to repeat. I can just give you a taste, not the whole meal.

Socrates: Say what? You’ve got his entire speech written down. It’s right there, under your cloak.

Phaedrus: No, that’s my – Yes, it’s a scroll.

Socrates: Uh huh.

Phaedrus: By the way, doesn’t this spot remind you of a cool local folk tale?

Socrates: Yeah, but I don’t study that stuff. Well, I do, sometimes, but not seriously. I mean, I don’t even know my own true nature yet. So why should I waste time with fairy tales? And… What a second. You’re trying to weasel out of our agreement! You promised to whip up a meal of Lysias’ brilliant insights on love. And here we are, by this lovely river, under a shady tree. Isn’t this a perfect place to analyze a speech?

Phaedrus: You don’t get out much, do you?

Socrates: Yeah, I’ll work on that. In the meantime, where’s this feast you promised?

Phaedrus: OK, OK. Hold your horses. Here’s the meal. It’s a speech by Lysias about how non-lovers are better than lovers, right?

Socrates: You said that.

Phaedrus: Yeah, so now let me whet your appetite. I’m Lysias, right? And I say that lovers are bad news because they give too much of themselves to those they love, and they demand too much in return. Lovers start out great, but then they get fickle and jealous and, well, d’ya ever see Fatal Attraction? It’s like that. Lovers, I mean. Bad news. Non-lovers, though, like the Honey Badger: “Just don’t care.” I mean, they care and all, but they don’t care so much that they’d hide the truth from you. Like, if your zipper were down. Your lover might ignore it, to not embarrass you. But a non-lover would say, “Dude, your fly’s down.” And isn’t that better? And the non-lover will tell you in public, when you really need to know. Heck, the non-lover can provide an honest reflection of public perception, because he isn’t so tied to your opinion. And then there’s the fact that the lover falls in love with you at a certain point in your life, only to hate that you’ve grown older, for changing and all. The non-lover, however, tolerates your age. And if he doesn’t, so what? You can just get another non-lover? The world’s full of ‘em! Bottom line: It’s better to surround yourself with non-lovers than with lovers.  

Socrates: [Embarrassed silence…]

Phaedrus: I know, right? [Mimics head explosion] Mind: Blown.

Socrates: Mmm-mmmm. That is a tasty burger.

Phaedrus: Mocking me. You’re mocking me, aren’t you? Y’understand, Lysias is, like, this amazing rhetorician. He invents these incredible speeches, so that even the most goofy ideas make sense. And you’re making fun. Dude, do you have any friends?

Socrates: No friends like Lysias, I’ll tell you that. Look, I don’t know much about rhetoric. I’m just a small town philosopher: Wandering town. Having adventures. Challenging assumptions. Pissing off the cobblers with questions like “How do you know you make good shoes?” Stuff like that. So I can’t judge this speech – this meal, I mean – according to the standards of the chef. But I can tell you that Lysias appears to depend on a few ingredients that he slops together in icky combinations. Like Taco Bell.

Phaedrus: Like you could whip up a meal with half the good taste as Lysias.

Socrates: Well, sure, I could. I mean, it’s not that hard. The result, either from Taco Bell or vomited from my own mouth would look about the same.

Phaedrus: Barf away, my good man. And I’ll throw up a statue for you, big as life.

Socrates: Yeah, thanks for that. You know how much I love representations of truth.

Phaedrus: Again with the sarcasm.

Socrates: Look. Anyone can play around with meaningless comparisons: “Lover” versus “Non-Lover.” There’s no insight; it's all a matter of technique. The real question is: Can you start from basic principles and produce something true?  

Phaedrus: Uh huh…

Socrates: OK, so there’s no need for me to mimic Lysias then.

Phaedrus: Oh, poor Socrates. Not up to the challenge? Ugh. You’re no better than me. “Oh, Phaedrus, you’re just waiting to wax eloquently.” “Oh, no, not me!” You’re just waiting to philosophize, Socrates. So get on with –

Socrates: OK, you’ve convinced me.

Phaedrus: [Rolls eyes heavenward]

Socrates at the Vatican Museum
(Photo by Andrew Wood)
Socrates: [Joins fingers into a bridge] Yes, yes. Where shall we begin? Ah, of course, with a definition of love. Now, “the power of love is curious thing.”

Phaedrus: “Make a-one man weep –

Socrates: And another man sing,” right. What that means is that we’re devoted to two types of love. One represents our earthly desires; it’s born in us. The other is trained, or remembered. [Awkward pause…] Yes, now that second kind of love leads us toward higher ambitions. It’s like Trivial Pursuit versus Heavenly Pursuit. With me so far?

Phaedrus: I think so.

Socrates: OK, so it seems that Lysias may be right, because a lover will always try to game you. On the one hand, your lover will say sweet things. On the other hand, your lover will threaten to withhold those treats. And your lover will never want you to think of anything else, or to improve yourself. “Exercise so that I may find you attractive,” your lover will say, “but don’t work out so much that someone else might want you.” It’s a recipe for mediocrity. It’s also a quick road to lonely-town, because your lover won’t want you to have other friends, no point of comparison. And don’t get me started on age. Your lover will want you when you’re young but will abandon you later on. He’ll feast upon you. He’ll suck up your innards and then spit out the remains before leaving you a stinking carcass, waiting for the buzzards to sweep down and –

Phaedrus: Dude. Weren’t you a soldier in the war against Sparta? You saw some serious stuff, huh? 

Socrates: [Pretends to be lost in a “thousand yard stare”]

Phaedrus: OK, so “Lover: Bad.” Now what’s so good about non-lovers?

Socrates: You’d “love” for me to answer that, wouldn’t you? I haven’t given you enough? Here I am, standing on a stage for you. I’ve been speaking all afternoon and into the eve –

Phaedrus: Dude. It’s, like, noon. Chill.

Socrates: Ah yes, the sun is sticking straight up. Look, my point is: Yes. I can give as bad a speech as Lysias. I can even give an even worse speech. What does that prove? The fact is: Lysias has taught incorrectly about love. He knows a thing or two about rhetoric, nothing about love.

Phaedrus: And you know more?

Socrates: About love, my dear Padawan? Yes, of course!

Phaedrus: And…?

Socrates: Right. First, we need to understand that love and madness are closely related.

Phaedrus: Yeah, I kinda saw that coming.

Socrates: Well you sure can’t have one without the other. In fact, madness, while something we often mock on Earth, is actually proof of the divine within us. Of course there are several types of madness, such as the experience of prophets or seers, and each of these types are related to a particular god. But the madness that motivates us the most is erotic love.

Phaedrus: No surprises there.

Socrates: But it’s not just about sex. Look, you know about the soul, right? The soul is like… Hey, it’s like what you said before: “Hold your horses.” Yeah, the soul is like a charioteer being pulled by two winged horses.

Dwie Judha Satria [website]
Phaedrus: I think I saw that on a Judas Priest album cover.  

Socrates: Sure, why not. Anyway, the soul is really a combination of the three. The charioteer is immortal and, in a way, never-changing. Then there are those horses. Restless. Ever-changing. Dragging the charioteer in two different directions. The soul is both at the same time.

Phaedrus: Like a –

Socrates: Don’t even try it. The point is, each charioteer follows one of the gods, cruising the universe, savoring delights, stuff like that. Problem is, these human charioteers are pulled by opposing horses. There’s this “noble” horse that leads us toward heaven. Then there’s this “ignoble” horse that drags us toward Earth. The noble horse loves truth and beauty; the ignoble horse prefers opinion and pleasure. So the charioteer tries to manage these opposing forces, hoping to cavort with the gods. Depending upon how close he gets, he will be born as a philosopher, or maybe an artist. Otherwise they’re condemned to be something like a farmer, or a sophist, or – worst of all – a tyrant. So we live and die, trying and trying again. Some of us get closer to wisdom; others just keep crashing to earth. Eventually some go to heaven; others are condemned to live in a horrible place under the earth.

Phaedrus: I was caught in a snowstorm at Denny’s once. Had to eat two meals there, lunch and dinner, before the roads got cleared.  

Socrates: Exactly. Anyway, philosophers who get closest to heaven are reborn with enough memory of their experiences that they can’t quite fit in back on earth. Everything they see looks fake to them. They know that the crap served at Denny’s is not technically “food.” And they wonder why their friends and neighbors wolf it down. To everyone else, though, especially those drawn to the artificial pleasures of earthly existence, these folks are nuts. And in a sense they are crazy. They’re crazy for anything on Earth that reminds them of that which floats above. What’s more, we’re all crazy in different ways, depending on the gods we follow. Along the way, we meet other charioteers, each struggling with horses of their own. Sometimes we’ll give in and allow our bad horses with their earthly desires to drag us together and ultimately down to earth. But occasionally, once we learn to “hold our horses,” we may commune with other like-minded people. In this way, we may love them. Not with the madness that sends us crashing to earth, but rather with a higher love that lofts us ever upward. So you see: it’s a paradox. We must be mad to be drawn to heaven. Yet we must conquer that madness to get there.

Phaedrus: Wow.

Socrates: Yeah. So, you see: Lysias kinda sucks, huh?

Phaedrus: Yeah.

Socrates: It’d be better for him to be a philosopher, huh?

Phaedrus: Yeah.

Socrates: Indeed, that’s part of the problem. With rhetoricians, I mean. They “love” words, and they “love” the sound of applause. But they have no understanding of real love because they have no concern for the difference between good and bad.

Phaedrus: And you think we should talk about that, huh?

Socrates: Well, don’t you?

Phaedrus: Actually, I was thinking that it’s getting sort of late.

Socrates: Nonsense! We shall chat like grasshoppers, never tired to chirp of lovely things.

Phaedrus: Yes. Like grasshoppers. Of course, even grasshoppers need to – 

Socrates: So let us continue!

Phaedrus: Naturally. What shall we talk about?

Socrates: Why, talking, of course! We shall talk about talking.

Phaedrus: Of course we will.

Socrates: Now when it comes to orators –

Phaedrus: I’ve heard this one. Orators don’t care about truth. They only care about applause.

Socrates: Exactly. Orators can convince you to do silly things. Like, “Definitely, you should get a tattoo of Nickelback. Those guys are timeless!”

Phaedrus: Yeah, those guys suck… But wait a second. Isn’t rhetoric just that stuff that lawyers do to win cases and legislators do to pass laws?

Socrates: OK, let’s presume that you’re right. But what is the real topic of these matters? Legislators and lawyers aren’t just talking about laws and lawsuits; they’re talking about right and wrong.

Phaedrus: Yeah.

Socrates: But when they’re good – I mean effective – they can make the one appear as the other.

Phaedrus: Sure.

Socrates: But don’t you see? That kind of dispute isn’t limited to courtrooms and assemblies. Distinguishing right from wrong is pretty much central to all human life. The problem is that orators, because they can’t tell the difference, can cause plenty of mischief wherever they go.

Phaedrus: This is getting a bit too abstract for me.

Socrates: OK, let’s try a concrete example, then: those speeches we’ve been discussing.

Phaedrus: Let’s.

Socrates: Now Lysias: He presumes that we all agree on certain things, such as the division of terms: “lover” and “non-lover.” But that’s a distinction without real difference. At least it is, unless we first define love.

Phaedrus: Yeah, you did that.

Socrates: And Lysias didn’t. He presumes a definition of love without actually offering one. Then he meanders along a twisted line of thinking, like this river here. His words wander to-and-fro, leading us nowhere.

Phaedrus: Maddening…

Socrates: Ah yes, my speech. Now my speech begins with the argument that love is madness.

Phaedrus: Sometimes it seems that love is a battlefield.

Socrates: Bite me, my good man. I was mostly playing, weaving together a bit of myth and doggerel. But my point remains: I began by dividing madness into different types, aligning them with our different gods. Then I associated “love” with one of those types: erotic love. Remember?

Phaedrus: Yo, I was there. I still am. Where are we going with this?

Socrates: We’re talking about the process of discussion. To speak the truth about anything, sometimes you have to break things down into their parts. Sometimes you have to bring them together into a coherent whole. Ultimately you must be able to see both at the same time: the “one and many.” Folks who do that stuff well are called “Dialecticians.”

Phaedrus: Hmmm, that’s certainly not what Lysias and his rhetoric-pals do. So what is rhetoric then?

Socrates: Well, based on the handbooks I’ve read, it appears that rhetoricians cobble together rules of speech-making. Like, “start with this appeal and then use that trick…” Really, they’re all just cribbing from those old crows Corax and Tisias who squawked out techniques for confusing “long” and “short” so that the only thing we ever measure is convenience.

Phaedrus: Flaccid reasoning, to be sure.

Socrates: You're far too kind. Those rhetoricians may natter about seemingly trivial things, but we treat them like rock stars. No, not like rock stars… like doctors. We ask for their prescriptions and take what they give us, never caring to ask where they got their training. We pretend that they understand our individual maladies, when all they do is sell the same patent medicines to anyone who can pay. Or if you’d have us return to the rock star analogy: Rhetoricians are like musicians who can strum a chord, though they know nothing about music.

Phaedrus: Can there be any “true” art of rhetoric then? Or is it all an endless Nickelback concert?

Socrates: Let’s just say that most rhetoric is pretty bad. But some is less bad, like a Pericles oration. Now that guy was OK, but mostly because he was trained by a philosopher. To continue our medical theme, Pericles would be a good doctor because he took the time to study the “body politic” with consideration for the “whole” body.

Phaedrus: Uh huh.

Socrates: And that’s what a good rhetorician should do. He seeks to inspire the soul. To teach his art, he’d begin by explaining the soul and then defining whether the soul is unified or composed of different parts, each requiring a different appeal. Finally he’d explain why one appeal works in a particular case but is inappropriate in another case.

Phaedrus: Yep, that seems like a pretty good job description for a rhetorician.

Socrates: But Lysias doesn’t offer that kind of training, does he?

Phaedrus: No, not as such.

Socrates: But might Lysias reply that we’re being overly strict on the matter? Is not persuasion a game of winning and losing? Is it not true that “history is written by the winners”? That’s what Tisias taught, right? Or Corax, or one of those guys… That truth is a matter of opinion?

Phaedrus: Seems so.

Socrates: Of course it does. But if Tisias were standing here today, we’d have to remind him that all words are merely representations of the truth. And that when we’re stuck with words, we must at least strive to select only the best representations.

Phaedrus: Nothing but the best for us.

Socrates: Yet only one who knows the truth may hope to tell the difference, and that knowledge does not come easy. It takes time and effort. But to be a good rhetorician – those few that may be found – such struggle is necessary.

Phaedrus: I should write this down.

Socrates: No, please don’t. For you see –

Phaedrus: Aren’t we almost done?

Socrates: Almost. You see, there’s just this matter of writing.

Phaedrus: Which is bad because

Socrates: Because writing demonstrates an even worse application of rhetoric than speaking. You see, writing was invented by this Egyptian god named Theuth –

Phaedrus: You’re making this up.

Socrates: No, really! Theuth was convinced that writing would help the Egyptians remember things. So he explains this to the god of Egypt, a guy named Thamus.

Phaedrus: Oh for gods’ sake.

Socrates: Bear with me. Or is it “bare” with me? Either way, Thamus says, “Like a doting father, you have too much esteem for your children. This ‘writing’ you invented won’t improve memory; it’ll destroy it.” And he’s right. Like, how many phone numbers do you remember right now? How many? And d’ya know why? Because of your cell phone. Get it? Once you write or tap down your information, you know longer have to remember it. What you remember instead, maybe, is the experience of writing or typing. You remember a sensation without truth.

Phaedrus: Seriously, you’re just pulling this out of your cloak, aren’t you?

Socrates: Oh, you don’t want to know what’s under there. And let’s not forget your own limitations. I mean, I tell a tale from Egypt, and you don’t believe me? Just because it's from EgyptYou don’t get out much, do you?

Phaedrus: OK, I get it.

Socrates: And that’s the point. Writing is like painting. You see an image, but you cannot ask anything of its author. And, like rhetoric, the result offers no special formulation for its audience; it never changes.

Phaedrus: Wait, isn’t truth changeless?

Socrates: Clever boy. But the only “truth” we poor humans can handle arises through philosophic analysis. Give and take. The kind of dialogue we’ve been having, actually. I’m an ugly old man and you’re a frivolous fop, but our souls speak to each other, despite the faults and foul odors of our bodies. In fact, our bodies are built for this kind of intellectual intercourse. I’m merely hoping to plant the seeds of wisdom in you.

Phaedrus: [Awkward pause] So written words are –

SocratesMere monuments to the folly of a man trying to grab onto his youth.

Phaedrus: You illustrate your point beautifully.

Socrates: So when it comes to communication…

Phaedrus: Yeah, I get it. Oral is better.

Socrates: Pretty much most of the time.

Phaedrus: OK, I’ll pass that message along to Lysias. But what about you? Don’t you have a pal named Isocrates who also fancies himself a teacher of speech?

Socrates: Most definitely, I intend to plant my wisdom-seed in him later today.

Phaedrus: Well OK then. Sprout on, old man. 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Animated Neon: Siesta and Santa Fe

During my recent Devils Tower solo road trip, I shot some animated video of two swell motel signs: the Santa Fe Motel in Tehachapi and the Siesta Motel in Salt Lake City:

Sunday, August 24, 2014

San Francisco Street Art II

More Tenderloin street art...

45 Olive Street [GMap]
150 Hemlock Street [GMap]
100 Hemlock Street [GMap
100 Austin Street [GMap]

Friday, August 1, 2014

Washington D.C. Street Art

Here's some street art found during a recent trip to Washington D.C.

 Karla Rodas [Karlisima]'s presidential mural
Mama Ayesha's Restaurant, 1967 Calvert Street NW [GMap]
Presidential mural [Detail]
Aristide Bruant [reproduction of Toulouse-Lautrec painting]
2431 18th Street NW [GMap]
1817 Adams Mill Road NW [GMap]
Marilyn Monroe, 2600 Connecticut Avenue NW [GMap]
Madam's Organ, 2461 18th Street NW [GMap
Sol & Soul/Jaun Pineda's "A People Without Murals is a Demuralized People"
1817 Adams Mill Road NW [GMap]
Gaia's "Chicken"
1412 P Street NW [GMap]