Stating the Obvious

Can philosophy make a difference? Here, with ‘philosophy’ I don’t mean what is usually labelled as such in Germany: some pompous shooting-from-the-hip mansplaining on every possible question, either on salon level (Richard David Precht) or with more academic ambition (Julian Nida-Rümelin).

I’m rather talking about the humble attempt “to understand how things in the broadest sense of the term hang together in the broadest sense of the term”. This definition stems from the US-american philosopher Wilfrid Sellars (1912-1989). He adds that such an understanding would help “to ‘know one’s way around’ with respect to all these things”. Successful philosophy aims, accordingly, rather at the acquisition of a skillset than at the acquisition of factual or even theoretical knowledge.

I don’t know whether I completely agree with Sellars’ definition, but I like it in a way. To my experience, philosophical insight very often comes with the feeling of having been stubbornly reminded of the obvious. And that is the case even though it can take considerable energy to get to this point. Then the effect more often than not is that several other things suddenly fall into place and you are less prone to make certain errors.

It might sound a bit paradoxical, but the obvious is not necessarily clear. So you have to dig for it, rinse to clean it from all kinds of pollutants, and hold it to light in all possible angles. Then comes the insight: Well, isn’t it obvious?

I had happily given up on philosophy after my Ph. D. thesis, and there have been definitely no deep dives from my side afterwards. But I’m still prone to searching for the obvious, and it has helped me in so many different areas and situations. Some of these ‘common philosophy’ digs have made it into this blog. See, for example, the seven-part series of “Journalistische Reflexionen” (links in the right margin), or my essay with the title “Die Freiheit, die wir meinen (sollten)” (dt./engl.). The latter also shows that sometimes my stubborn insistence of digging for the obvious brings me in positions at odds with what is now fashionable mainstream thinking – in this case the sloppy concept of ‘agency’ you will find in many contemporary social theories like Bruno Latour’s ‘Actor-Network-Theory’, with a lot of hideous unintended and unreflected consequences. (Read the comment section of the german version for some discussion.)

Anyways, I have been playing with the idea of extending the “Journalistische Reflexionen” to something a bit broader in range – a kind of “Philosophical Primer for Journalists”. I think that regaining insight into the nature of some concepts central to journalism (like truth, independence, analysis, argumentation, the distinction between description and evaluation etc.) could be helpful. Maybe not as arguments in future discussions with the bullshit artists of our time (because they are not interested in insight) but simply for adding to the confidence and stability with which we enter into these fights. It’s always good to thave the obvious on your side.

Simple Pleasures

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Addictive Greek Fava (Photo: LLM)

In Asako Yuzuki’s novel Butter, the imprisoned female serial killer Manako Kajii demands of the journalist Rika to try out one simple dish: A bowl of rice with a spoonful of butter and a shot of soy sauce. The experience is the starting point of a life-changing journey.

The very same dish, in Japanese it’s called Bata Shoyu Gohan, is the topic of Episode 5 in Season 1 of the wonderful japanese TV series Midnight Diner. Here the frugal little meal and, of course, an associated story bring a renowned food critic to join the ranks of the Master’s nightly regulars in his humble Tokyo diner.

I’ve immediately adopted the recipe and made it part of my breakfast routine. It’s so quickly done and incredibly delicious. In a popular variation you can use a raw egg instead of the butter (Tamago Kake Gohan), or, as I also like to do, combine the two ingredients. Depending on your degree of purism you might or might not want to garnish the result with chives, sesame seed, Furikake or Shichimi.

I’m a big fan of these miraculous, very easily prepared and simple dishes. The first one that I got to celebrate – thanks to my Italian high school classmate Daniele – was Spaghetti Olio, Aglio e Peperoncino, in his version garnished with a generous amount of parsley. Or take Tudousi, the Chinese way to transform potatoes from a starchy staple into an interesting, full-blown vegetable dish.

In a recent addition after our trip to Crete some weeks ago, I’m now experimenting with Fava, the Greek mash made out of yellow peas, normally served with a topping of chopped red onions, chives, capers and some olive oil. My first attempt found no mercy with my discerning wife, I had added too many herbs and other spices to the mash. Now I’ve reduced it to more purity, just adding some salt and a pinch of sugar to the peas, leaving it to the eater to add additional spices according to taste, and we are both satisfied.

PS: With a slightly different garnish you step some degrees of latitude northward to a very different cooking tradition and produce what I had already mentioned in a different post, my beloved “gelbes Erbsenpüree mit Speckstippe” (pease pudding with fried onions and bacon):

Fava variation Pease Pudding (Photo: LLM)

Serving the Predators

One of the reasons I’m not watching more television, especially within german public TV programming, is their obsession with violent crime drama. And, after Thomas Harris’ admittedly gorgeous Hannibal Lecter novels and movies, it far too often has to be serial killers, with the addition of some ritualistic fuss providing the generic dark aesthetics. And the victims, it seems, always have to be female.

It takes a crazy, hilarious, Tasmanian, feminist, lesbian-dominated show to turn the tables on typical patriarchal noir TV

Even granted the needs for some pleasant creepiness and scare, I’m stunned by the fact that nobody complains, for example about the standard opening scenes of such movies showing a woman in the dark, somewhere, running for her life, in vain. What this signifies, generally speaking, and even more, what it means to the countless female viewers, for whom panic in the dark is an all too familiar experience.

To be very clear: In my eyes this genre serves exclusively a patriarchal perspective, it plays the game of the violator by giving him control and a lustful view of his prey. No subsequent procedure, no smart but conflicted female police officers, no final shootout with the culprit being taken down can make good for this basically affirmative stance to (and even identification with) male violence.

I’m in the middle of watching Regina Schilling’s very good documentary “Diese Sendung ist kein Spiel”, on Eduard Zimmermann’s true crime TV show “Aktenzeichen XY ungelöst” that scared the shit out of us BRD children from the late 1960s onward. In her typically precise psychohistorical approach she shows how the programme served a very conservative agenda. She might as well have called it: Patriarchy.

And the notorious ‘noir’ formats (no matter if US American, Scandinavian, French or German) follow a similar patriarchal agenda, albeit in an even more arbitrary and brutal sense, with the evil male perpetrator being honoured by handing him the camera and giving him the control of the nights and the cult.

Ordinary Nightlife

Picture: NYPL Public Domain Archive

As long as I can think, I’ve been an owl. My natural waking hours, to which I’m always returning if nothing forces me otherwise, are from 11am until 3am, give or take an hour. I’m not at all happy with it, there are so many collective rhythms in society that you are out of tune with, living a life like that. And, especially in winter, you are missing out on a lot of beautiful sunlight. Consequently, we owls are said to have a higher risk for depression, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure…

On the other hand, attempts to re-educate an owl and change it into a lark are not without risk. I explain this to my friends using the story of poor René Descartes. He was an extreme owl like me, normally sleeping well into noon hours. In his 50s, as an already renowned philosopher, he was invited to the court of Queen Christina of Sweden, who was a lark. He was scheduled to meet her for philosophical tutoring three times a week at 5am, in winter. They didn’t get along well. After only a few weeks, Descartes died of pneumonia.

So I’m set to make the best out of my predicament. The quiet of nights has its own charms. There are some ingenious radio programs – one of my favourite stations, the french eclectic Radio FIP, plays the wonderfully weirdest music after midnight. Ideas may come to you like friendly ghosts.

During my university years in the 1980s I used to work as a taxi driver in Hamburg. Driving night shifts I especially loved the early morning hours, around 4 am, when the last night birds from the clubs drifting home met the first early birds on their way to work in the big flower markets or slaughterhouses. The city is at its quietest then, but still there is life and it has a very special quality.

Sometimes, at the end of our shift, we would have an early breakfast in Erika’s Eck in Hamburg’s Schanzenviertel, at that time an all-night pub especially for the slaughterhouse workers, where you’d get steaming-hot coffee and a protein-rich breakfast for very little money, combined with the freshly-printed tabloid newspaper BILD still wet and sticky from the presses.

Digital Libraries

Calibre is the best management software for your e-book library.

One of the pleasures of retirement consists in finally having the time for unrestrained reading. I’ve never been one for television, and apart from the occasional nightly series binge and some documentaries I mostly stay away from videos.

On the other hand, I’ve used the opportunity of having to dismantle my university office where I kept most of my physical books to finally migrate my library from paper to digital.

Now I live and work with a bipartite repository. Most of the academic books I’ve kept are PDF files, and I use the almighty reference management software Zotero for keeping track of books, papers and other media relating to academic work.

For other nonfiction and for the fictional literature I prefer the more flexible EPUB format which allows me to configure my own page layout, typography and font size. I manage this part of my library in Kovid Goyal’s powerful software Calibre, which serves for quality and metadata maintenance and as central hub for the different portable gadgets and apps I use for reading: On my Android phone it’s Moon+ Reader, on the iPad MapleRead. Both apps are feature-rich and well-maintained and provide a very pleasant reading experience.

But the best of all is my Pocketbook Inkpad 4, a sizable eInk device with sufficient memory, a fantastic screen and even speakers if I want to listen to audiobooks. Pocketbook’s native software is not so great, so I’ve installed the very good free Koreader app which allows for various additional functions and configurations.

Over the years, my EPUB library has grown to more than 2000 titles, probably much more than I’d be able to read for the rest of my life. But like with a physical library I love to move around surrounded by books. It’s like living in a big, cultivated city with in-built time travel, being able to consult the most interesting people of all times whenever you feel like it.

And if anybody tells you that this is not possible with only ‘virtual’ books, don’t believe them. I don’t miss the pompous and clumsy wall decoration. To the contrary, I’m greatly looking forward to a near future when artificial intelligence will allow me to semantically search within my library, connect the dots and even interact with my books as through a comprehensively read, benevolent librarian.

So I admit that, notwithstanding my limited lifespan, I’m adding to my library on a nearly daily basis, making use of additions to the public domain at Delphi Classics, MobileRead or Standard E-Books, and regularly scanning the big E-Book-Stores for special offers.

Under The Blue Skies

Today it’s been tonkatsu for dinner, with vegetables in a curry from these notorious japanese cubes. I’m always amused by the european influences on japanese cooking and how they modify them just enough to make something magically different.

After I had grumpily acknowledged about two weeks ago that Bluesky, not Mastodon, might be the platform to go after the destruction of Twitter, my timeline there has now matured into something really worthwhile. As I am a mostly passive user, the range and quality of my followings are way more important to me than the number of my followers. Every day I’ve been busy adding dozens of qualified accounts to follow, so that I’m now quickly approaching the number of 1.8k followings that I had on Twitter. There are already plenty of interesting people from science, politics and media on Bluesky, and I make effort to prioritize female voices to reduce the usual buddy bias.

It still bugs me a lot that this is another private US-based venture. I would have much preferred for my network to be genuinely non-profit, open-standard, decentralized like Mastodon, but the value lies mostly in the interesting people, and these now seem to gravitate toward Bluesky, even though it smells to me very much like another cryptoboy billionaire’s toy in the making.

The other area where Bluesky is subpar compared to Mastodon (let alone Twitter) is functionality. No hashtags, no bookmarks, no direct messages, no support for threads, the stupid length limitation to 300 characters – and the speed of development seems to be rather slow. But already there are people from the community delivering tools and workarounds, like blogging pioneer Dave Winer with his Thread Writer, or the brazilian programmer Gildásio Filho who is the brain behind the fast-developing Tweetdeck-clone deck.blue.

Another huge loss from Elon Musk’s wanton dismantling of Twitter is not yet and will probably never be mitigated: the possible use of the network as a real-time empirical access point to the global public spheres. This does not only affect the network’s value as a source of unmediated news. All the path-breaking work by scientists like Axel Bruns and Jean Burgess, who showed the scientific community how to use Twitter as an extremely powerful new tool to feel a society’s pulse – it’s all made obsolete by the Elmo idiot. I don’t know yet about the API policies of Bluesky, but it is also a question of scale, and I don’t think any of the recent Twitter successors will ever reach its level of global penetration.

Always Coming Home (to Ursula)

Ursula K. Le Guin (Oct 21, 1929 – Jan 22, 2018)
Foto: Marian Wood Kolisch – Wikimedia Commons

Now I need to hurry, because there are only a few minutes left to commemorate one of my absolutely favourite authors on her birthday: Ursula K. Le Guin, who, honed on her parents’ craft, wrote outstanding science fiction with an anthropologist’s eye for the social and cultural, anarchist, belated feminist, and simply great writer. She will continue to be a reliable companion for me in the years to come.

Plädoyer für einen Kampagnenjournalismus

Vorbemerkung: Diesen Text habe ich vor ziemlich genau acht Jahren, am 18.11.2014, bei Carta.info veröffentlicht. Der hochgeschätzte Martin Hoffmann hat ihn gerade wieder ausgegraben und fragt zurecht, warum wir in dieser Frage gefühlt so wenig vorangekommen sind. Ich musste damals (vor allem für den Kamagnen-Begriff) ziemlich viel Kritik einstecken, und habe den Beitrag dann 2015 noch einmal in einem re:publica-Talk aufgegriffen, um deutlicher zu machen, worum es mir geht: Um ein wertegesteuertes strategisches Themen-Management.

Das Wort „Kampagne hat einen negativen Beigeschmack. Nicht so sehr in der Werbung oder PR – dort zeigen wir Verständnis dafür, dass Kommunikationsziele in größeren, orchestrierten Projekten über längere Zeiträume verfolgt werden, das gehört dort zum Geschäft. Aber im Journalismus gelten Kampagnen als anrüchig. Redaktionen oder einzelne Journalisten, die Positionen beziehen und diese dann auch noch hartnäckig verfolgen, riskieren, auf diese Positionen reduziert zu werden und insgesamt an Reputation und Glaubwürdigkeit einzubüßen.

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Die Bordelaiser Konsuln und die Revolution

Im letzten Beitrag hatte ich ein Bild meines Vorfahren Georg Christian Lorenz Meyer (1787-1866) gezeigt, der Anfang/Mitte des 19. Jahrhunderts bereits in dritter Generation Weinhändler in Hamburg war. Sein Onkel, der Hamburger Domherr Friedrich Johann Lorenz Meyer (1760-1844), Reiseschriftsteller und republikanischer Public Intellectual, war für einige Zeit mein Avatar (Wikipedia). Auf die Berichte des Domherrn aus dem vor- und nachrevolutionären Frankreich hatte ich bereits in einem früheren Beitrag Bezug genommen. Diese Berichte gehören zu den Quellen, aus denen sich damals viele Menschen in Deutschland, unter anderem auch der Philosoph Immanuel Kant, über die Entwicklungen in Frankreich informierten.

Porträt des Philosophen Immanuel Kant, das dieser im Jahr 1799 für Friedrich Johann Lorenz Meyer hat anfertigen lassen, auf dessen besonderen Wunsch.

Ein weiterer Onkel von Georg Christian war Daniel Christoph Meyer (1751 -1818), Bruder des Domherrn. Daniel Christoph hatte es schon in den 1770er Jahren von Hamburg nach Bordeaux verschlagen, wo er ursprünglich für den familiären Weinhandel als Einkäufer gearbeitet hat, sich später aber als Vertreter auch anderer Hamburger Handelsfirmen niederließ und ab 1797 auch als Hamburgischer Generalkonsul tätig war.

Konsul Daniel Christoph Meyer aus Bordeaux
mit seiner Ehefrau Henriette, geb. Andrieu de St. André,
gemalt in den Jahren 1811 und 1812 von ihrer Tochter Mathilde

Ein Zeitgenosse, der Otterndorfer und Verdener Schulrektor Johann Christian Meier, zeichnet in seinen Erinnerungen ein nicht besonders sympathisches Bild von Daniel Christoph Meyer, den er allerdings zugegebenermaßen nur einmal und in jüngeren Jahren getroffen habe:

“Er maitrisierte und hamburgisierte vollkommen. Ohne stolz und für sich eingenommen zu erscheinen, beantwortete er meine paar Fragen in solchen kurzen Bruchstücken, dass ich wohl sahe, dass meine Wenigkeit nicht nach seinem Geschmack war. […] Er übertrifft seinen Bruder [Georg Christians Vater Valentin Lorenz Meyer, Chef der Weinhandlung] noch in Ausbildung und in einer Art eines nicht gut zu beschreibenden Airs und ist dabei, wie sein Bruder, so gross, dass er weit über preußische Maßen hält […] Solche Herren, denen ihr größtes Verdienst doch ihr Reichtum und ihre Kaufmannschaft ist, steigen in eine Höhe in ihrem Betragen, dass man immer blinzeln muss, um sie nicht zu verlieren.”

Dieser Konsul Meyer ist vor allem als Fußnote in der Literaturgeschichte aktenkundig geworden, denn seine Frau und er beschäftigten für wenige Monate den Dichter Friedrich Hölderlin als Hauslehrer für ihre Kinder, bevor dieser zu Fuß den Rückweg von Bordeaux ins heimatliche Württemberg antrat, wo er im Sommer 1802 in einem Zustand hochgradiger geistiger Verwirrung eintraf.

Nun habe ich durch Zufall auf den letzten Seiten von Simon Schamas großer (und großartiger) Chronik der französischen Revolution Citizens gelesen, dass in Bordeaux ein gewisser Konsul Meyer 1794 bei der Fluchthilfe für aufgeklärte Aristokraten in der Zeit des revolutionären Terrors eine (wenn auch bescheidene) Rolle gespielt. Das hat mich natürlich neugierig gemacht.

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Die Tafeln meiner Kindheit

Meine Eltern hatten in den Nachkriegsjahren eine große Familie zu versorgen. Auch wenn es eher selten vorkam, dass alle sieben Kinder gemeinsam am Tisch saßen, mussten regelmäßig viele Münder gestopft werden – es gab ja auch noch zahlreiche Vettern, Kusinen oder Freunde des Hauses. Kürzlich habe ich mich gefragt: Was kam eigentlich bei Lorenz-Meyers im Wohltorf der 60er und 70er Jahren auf den Tisch? Mit etwas Konzentration sind mir allerlei Dinge eingefallen.

Viele Jahre lang das Wohltorfer Geschirr: das wunderschöne “Phönix” von Villeroy & Boch

Warm gegessen wurde fast ausschließlich mittags, Ausnahmen eigentlich nur am Weihnachtsabend und bei festlich geladenen Gästen. Normalerweise gab es abends höchstens aufgewärmte Reste, vor allem für den vom anstrengenden Tagwerk ausgehungerten Vater, gelegentlich auch für die Mutter. Bei uns Kindern waren Reste sowieso eher unbeliebt.

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