Sunday, 28 January 2018

The Jewish Sorceress

by Teresita Pumar√°

women are but the toys which amuse our lighter hours.
Sir Walter Scott.

I have a feeling, a feeling deep inside, a feeling I can’t hide. This feeling tells me that the true main character in Walter Scott´s Ivanhoe is Rebecca, the Jewish physician who cures Wilfred of Ivanhoe´s wounds, is then kidnapped by a Templar knight and later saved from the stake by the grateful Wilfred. Furthermore, I believe that the theme of the novel (at least one of them) is the unrecognised role of women in medieval society. Surprisingly, like no other male writer of his time and very few of ours, Sir Walter Scott appears to be a feminist.
Here I want to apologize to all scholars of English literature, because I am writing with no serious investigative knowledge on the subject. I read the novel thoroughly and was deeply surprised by the writer´s subtle intelligence and clarity of judgement. I will try, nevertheless, to support my feeling deep inside by bringing forward how the narrator depicts women and how he depicts the way his male characters relate to women. To everybody´s comfort I will often refer to the narrator with the author´s name.

Rebecca is the daughter of Isaac of York, a Jewish usurer. Although her father presents some of the typical traits of Jewish characters in European literature, Rebecca on the contrary shows none of them. She is calm and self-assured, but sensible and generous. And when Sir Walter reveals her ability as a physician I immediately noticed the absence of a remark about the relation between the healer´s genre and her capacity. Not once does he say, “she was clever or skilled despite being a woman” or “she had a masculine mind”, neither he censors or punishes her for her knowledge. Furthermore: he gives Rebecca a female master.
I cannot but compare this to the way Balzac depicts women. The French writer often refers to women in general as the “weak sex”. This weakness means usually that they require the support and protection of men, and that they fall easily to the temptation of earthly pleasures, and drag men with them. The classic pattern. The uncommonly cultivated women in Balzac´s novels are silenced. If they are wise they hide willingly their disturbing knowledge. In Albert Savarus Balzac explicitly praises this attitude and wonders if it is better to educate women and so risk to produce demons, or not to educate them and leave them victims of their passions.

Regarding the male characters, Sir Walter shows them as spoiled children when it comes to women. Whenever a woman does not do as they wish, they scowl and call them ungrateful. How is it possible that you don´t like me?, they ask in much subtler ways. How can you be so cold and defensive after I kidnapped you and repeatedly expressed my wish to rape you? What is better is that there is no need for the narrator to pass judgement about his characters actions. Their doings and words are enough.
Towards the last part of the novel, for example, Brian de Bois-Guilbert, a Knight of the Temple, falls for Rebecca, kidnaps her and hides her in the Templar convent. At the same time, the Templar Grandmaster arrives to bring the Order back to order, so to say. When Rebecca´s father comes to offer a ransom for his daughter, the Grandmaster discovers that the licentious Bois-Guilbert keeps hidden a Jewish woman, who is the known disciple of a burnt sorceress. The preceptor of the convent, who is a friend of the guilty knight, finds then the way to save his friend and himself by blaming the woman. She has bewitched the valiant knight, he says. He is but a victim and he, the preceptor, has allowed her presence in the convent only to control the situation and prevent the poor knight from falling in further sin. The fanatic Grandmaster obviously loves the story and calls Rebecca to judgement.

But what makes Sir Walter in Ivanhoe a complete feminist, with the negative load all idealism implies, is that Rebecca has no flaw. She is the only character in the novel who never shows a moment of weakness. For example, when she is facing the stake and the Templar knight offers her to escape together, she rejects him with not one moment of doubt. By denying Rebecca the right to fail a little to herself, at least to doubt about what she holds sacred, Sir Walter makes an angel of her and not a woman, a human being. By doing so he places her in an unreachable position. And so it seems to us, the women who read the novel, that to be an honourable woman is never to fail. Some women understood female liberation this way and plunged into life trying to comply with all of what society demanded of them. They became successful professionals, but also beautiful desirable women, good mothers, of course, and attentive housewives. They are Rebecca. It is time, I think, to fail a little bit, step down of the pedestal, and come out of hell.  

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Excerpt from Philosophy of Cruelty

by Giorgio Baruchello

In the attempt to disseminate and spur philosophical reflection beyond sole academic circles, scholarly conferences and professional periodicals, Northwest Passage Books has offered me once more the opportunity to collect, revise and polish several past works of mine, which were written and published between 2000 and 2015. After a first volume focussing upon the philosophical theme par excellence, i.e. mortality, I was invited to gather and reshape articles, discussion pieces and book chapters, all of which deal with a less commonplace philosophical theme: cruelty. As the issue of mortality had led me into the history of philosophy, the lethal consequences of deficient conceptions of economics and the insights of a select group of great thinkers, so does the theme of cruelty open an equally rich spectrum of topics for keen philosophical inquiry. Fittingly, I explore here: (1) the most frequent conceptions of cruelty in Western culture; (2) some controversies surrounding its understanding in politics and in ethics; and (3) the contemporary school of political thought that is based upon its explicit and forceful rejection in the public sphere, championed by Judith Shklar and Richard Rorty, and known as liberalism of fear. I write “explore” because this is what the book consists in, chiefly: visiting strange new places, namely diverse thoughts and systems of thought, without knowing in advance where the wandering mind may end up. This book does not preach, though it does not shy away from judging, at times. It does not build a neat structure, though it organises a great variety of building blocks. Rather, this book sails over the vast sea of the Western canon and, while drawing a map of the same, it identifies the most perilous areas and the ones with fish aplenty.
Mortality terrifies and nevertheless intrigues many people for its inescapable yet definitive, indeed life-defining, character. In an analogous way, cruelty both repels for its intrinsic ugliness and yet appeals to a fond noir √† contenter [a dark depth to please] that most persons experience not infrequently within their own psyche, as exemplified by the broad allure of crime novels, horror movies and the eager morbid curiosity elicited by car crashes along the busiest motorways. Possibly because of the resulting ambiguity at the heart of cruelty, which is both revolting and fascinating, philosophical works about cruelty are both sparse and ample. On the one hand, when one reviews the philosophical and theoretical literature, she discovers that there exist very few studies devoted entirely and explicitly to it. Long monographs and large tomes on cruelty are particularly rare, unlike voluminous inquiries into, say, knowledge, justice, or government. On the other hand, remarks and considerations about cruelty abound in studies dealing with cognate terms (e.g. violence, oppression, vice) and related phenomena that affect social relations nearly everywhere in the world and at a considerable variety of levels (e.g. education, crime, statehood, law enforcement, sexuality, agribusiness, healthcare). The material and the ideas presented in this book should be of interest to the reading public at large, for we all are bound to meet cruelty in our lives at some point. We may not like the idea and even less the experience, but there is often nothing that we can do about it, as some of the following chapters make clear. Also, the same material and ideas should be of interest to those academics that have not come across the past studies of mine hereby collected and re-edited, since they have obvious and obviously significant implications for sociology, criminology, psychology and legal studies. Northwest Passage Books and its chief consultant, Dr. Brendan Myers, dare cross the border separating academic and non-academic publishing, in order to let many disciplines and mental attitudes criss-cross and cross-fertilise. In the same spirit, I hope to be able to reach a most diverse readership and stimulate reflection in all departments—academic ones, yes, but above all, of human life.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

New Book by Giorgio Baruchello

Philosophy of Cruelty
Collected Philosophical Essays

by Giorgio Baruchello

Paperback, $19.95 USD.
Purchase from Amazon

“Baruchello’s Philosophy of Cruelty, the second collection of his essays, turns a difficult and emotionally charged topic into a surprisingly informative and enlightening read. Covering the history of Western philosophy’s treatment of cruelty as a topic, yet relating every point to present-day occasions of violence and injustice, this book is a touchstone for any discussion of cruelty as a philosophical theme. It pulls no punches, yet it leaves you standing taller.”
--Brendan Myers,
author of The Other Side of Virtue and Reclaiming Civilization.

Table of Contents
PART I – Debating Cruelty
Chapter 1: Two Questions about Cruelty 
Chapter 2: Three Perspectives on Cruelty 
Chapter 3: Two Questions about Liberalism of Fear

PART II – Cruelty in the History of Thought
Chapter 4: No Pain, No Gain. The Understanding of Cruelty in Western Philosophy
Chapter 5: The Politics of Cruelty: On Sade and Nietzsche
Chapter 6: Ordinary Hell. Reflections on Penal Justice between Dante and Nils Christie

Chapter 7: Disciplinary Divisions and Petty Academics. In Memory of Richard Rorty (1931–2007) 
Chapter 8: The Ironic and Painful Cornering of Liberalism of Fear 
Chapter 9: Enemies of Interculturalism. The Economic Crisis in Light of Xenophobia, Liberal Cruelties and Human Rights

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Neuro Lessons in Metaphysics

by Denis Larrivee

Given the current proliferation in neuro research byways and highways, from working out such esoteric parameters as metastability indices and frontoparietal activation, developing therapeutic strategies like myelin regrowth and cell cycle activators, and designing an assortment of implantable technologies, perceived prospects for neuro-rehabilitative outcome have entered a phase that, while not ebullient, are nonetheless shimmering with anticipation. By comparison, prospects for re-acquiring normal mobility in the 1970s and 1980s for patients with severe lumbar trauma, let alone cervical transection or higher cognitive impairments, were minimal for the former and virtually non-existent for the latter. Basic research initiatives undertaken then by private funding organizations like the Paralyzed Veterans of America, for example, focused on endogenous cellular mechanisms affecting nerve outgrowth and synaptic connections in spinal or peripheral nerves. Advances in basic research since, on most aspects of nervous system function, from single neuron to large scale multi network modules, have greatly improved this understanding. Significantly, this basic research understanding has greatly expanded the prospective range for neurotechnological intervention in the form of medical implant devices.
This latest is good news for patients, especially the swelling ranks of those past 60 years of age that World Health Organization demographics portend. Improvements in medical care have today significantly extended life expectancies, and are expected to increase population percentages of this age group to 20% globally by 2050 and 25% or more by 2030 in the most technically advanced nations. Dominating the health prognostications of this population sector, however, is the considerably increased risk of cognitive impairment; hence, also the increasing likelihood of long term, medical health care burden associated with it. WHO projections, for example, indicate a relatively uniform or slightly increasing percentage of those within this group suffering cerebral ischemia. Improved medical care, moreover, has substantially reduced the mortality to incidence ratio, making long term therapeutic assistance for substantially greater numbers of patients nearly inevitable.
Early approaches to neural implant devices appealed to the relatively simpler anatomical configuration and functioning of peripheral sensory and motor nerves, and the basic to and from communication between brain and body of the spinal cord. This anatomical simplicity limited the spectrum of technical obstacles that faced engineering researchers in this earlier developmental phase. The therapeutic objective of these implant devices was confined principally to the replacement of lost neural function by mimicking neural signals that would ordinarily be transmitted in the damaged neural cells to their respective target organs. Editors Jensen, Andersen, and Akay summarized this basic design strategy in their conference text titled “Replace, Repair, Restore, Relieve” taken from the II International Neuro-rehabilitative conference in 2014. That is, the design for device communication with nerves, termed interfacial design, was premised on an understanding of nerve function that was linearly related to nerve signals and was delivered by one way signal transmission. In the absence of signals, the presumption was that no meaningful activity was carried. In other words, the signals alone were the functionally significant elements.
Building on these earlier, successful designs, implant devices for the brain have gone on to adopt a physiological understanding of brain operation that, while acknowledging the brain's greater anatomical complexity, is, nonetheless, a direct extrapolation of that premised in the interfacial designs of peripheral nerve implants. Hall, Nazapour, and Jackson's 2014 paper, for example, is illustrative, where an external electrical signal called the local field potential, is exploited for the purpose of isolating nerve signals, known as spiking rates, from individual neurons. Neglected in the presuppositions underpinning these strategies, however, is a philosophy of nature with which they can be reconciled, one that is linked to the global role of the brain in guiding behavior. Humans, like all organisms, are autonomous, a capacity built into and mediated in large measure by the brain; that is, the brain has been evolutionarily crafted to enable the individual to be autonomous, and not vice versa. Due to these supra-physical constraints, a number of consequences ensue. For example, the brain assists in maintaining bodily homeostasis, and so is, necessarily, persistently active. Moreover, organisms are endowed with goal directedness, meaning that the whole organism, within the confines of its bodily perimeters, is subordinate to the brain's - and peripheral nervous system's - guidance. As a result of this crafting, there are significant constraints imposed on the way in which the brain can be organized that differentiate its organization and operation from a strictly feed forward, off on off working arrangement used in peripheral nerves for direct communication with a target organ.
Because the brain must remain continually active, for example, there is a constant stream of sensorial input as well as interregional communication that generates a prevalent, indeed persistent, circumstance of background noise. Transmission of signals through nerve networks, accordingly, always includes a mixture of signal and noise.
Accordingly, the brain's anatomy must be reconfigured to overcome this circumstance, one that is achieved through nerve feedback loops. In fact, nearly 95% of brain neurons possess such recurrent connections. Through this reconfiguration nerve signals are cycled through preferred, low resistance pathways that helps to create stable and reliable responses that can overcome the noisy background in which they are immersed. That is, a system of constraints is established that dynamically stabilizes the signal trajectory, known as an attractor motif. The use of this motif, rather than the spiking activity per se that is employed in peripheral nerves, becomes, instead, the relevant parameter for the execution of behavior, a circumstance that bears implication for implant design. This system of constraints, moreover, is likely to contain multiple elements, that in addition to spiking features and synaptic connections, may include influences of other cells like glial cells, physical characteristics, and the like. Significantly, glial cells in the brain are very large, elaborate compared to other locations in the body, and abundant relative to neuronal cells. Thus, numerous elements of the brain are designed to overcome this physically noisy state to enable the individual to act as an individual.
More telling still is the brain's ability to compile combinations of dynamical motifs to expand the range of behavioral activities that can be performed, from our highest cognitive abilities to our relatively simple motor movements. This combinatorial as well as hierarchical scaling of dynamical elements offers an explanation for another fundamental feature of living systems, that is, how living systems attain goals autonomously; that is, the overcoming of noise is not the only consideration that is evidenced by these broader realities of living, particularly human, organisms. Autonomy also implies that goal seeking must be integrated in light of the holistic nature of the organism. That is, the nervous system must be crafted to perform as an entity. To do otherwise, would eventually result in its complete disintegration, as demonstrated in physical, non-living systems. In fact, there is increasing evidence that the dynamics of the brain are so constructed to enable this unitary and integral character of the organisms to be prioritively exercised. The construction of stable elements like attractor motifs, notably, is akin to the construction of building blocks that can then be assembled to create global platforms that can elicit localized activity in the context of the whole or, alternatively, serve as the basis for personal identity. These universal characteristics of the individual are increasingly recognized by neuroscientists in the current proliferation of global models for such features as consciousness, sleep, personal identity, and control over motor behaviors.
What all of this seems to point to is that principled philosophical insight into physical nature is needed and cannot be only empirical or mechanistic, which is to say only partial or compositional, but rather needs to be synthetic and comprehensive. In a phrase, metaphysics is not just a bad penny that keeps showing its image indiscreetly, but a determinative feature of nature that anchors nature's appearance, bearing its own suite of repercussions when not considered. Neuro-engineers, take note!