Matthew T Grant


Tall Guy. Glasses.

Thought Ronin

3156136099_c30649532e_mI’ve been a “thought ronin” for going on a year now.

In the same way that the lone gunslinger is a staple of the Western, ronin (“masterless samurai”) have been staple figures, and frequently protagonists, in samurai films from the very outset of the genre – an early epic of which was in fact entitled 47 Ronin.

My favorite anime film, Ninja Scroll, is the tale of a ronin, as is the more recent and rather austere The Sword of a Stranger, not to mention Kurosawa classics like Yojimbo and The Seven Samurai, to name but a few examples.

In other words, my sense of what a ronin is comes mainly from the movies (and Hagakure).

[As a total aside, it’s interesting to note that many of the most celebrated samurai films of recent years – such as the work of director Yoji Yamada, maker of the masterful Twilight Samurai – are not about ronin at all but instead about the plight of the low-ranking samurai who often had to ply a trade (e.g., building and selling umbrellas, for instance) to supplement their meager stipend. I read this as an allegory for the plight of the “salaryman” in contemporary Japan – but what do I know about it?]

Anyway, I called myself a “thought ronin” because everybody wants to be a thought leader and I guess I wanted to subtly mock that aspiration (having always been partial to the guru or “cult leader” angle).

On a more serious note, I was stating allegorically that, having served as the retainer of a thought leader and possessing many skills necessary to effective and ongoing thought leadership, I was for “out there.”

Finally, I thought the mass unemployment of “white collar workers,” including members of the intelligentsia such as myself, following on the Global Financial Crisis (is that still happening, btw?) analogous, mutatis mutandis, to the mass unemployment of samurai after the Battle of Sekigahara.

I mean, what did you think a thought ronin was?

The Conet Project: Acht Neun Null

Very strange recordings of shortwave radio messages apparently used by intelligence agencies during the Cold War but introduced to a broader audience after becoming an object of obsessive interest for hipster dad-rockers like Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. Check it out:

Audio Courtesy of Irdial and

Trivial Pursuits

3307392086_a9ff7132b1_mIt must have been 1995.

I was having dinner with a bunch of friends in a house where I had formerly lived in Cambridge.

It was a fairly typical evening for me back then (in the pre-kids era), partying and having hyper-educated goofball conversations with my fellow academics: the doctor of English; the doctor of American Studies; the doctor of Religious Studies; the precocious undergrad, etc.

What made this night unlike any other night was the presence of a traveling scholar, who I believe was a friend of my ex-roommate, Tom. This fellow was doing research at Harvard’s Law School and he had made his bones working on the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

I remember sitting around the table and having a dumb argument about Madonna and Cher, or something like that, and it struck me that this fellow must think we’re absolutely retarded. Products of America’s finest schools and representatives of the prosperous American Middle Class (and, we might as well say it, American Upper Class), and here we sit, indulging in mindless cocktail banter and busying ourselves with the abstruser angles of cultural studies while other people (him, specifically), were focused on things like creating an equitable judicial process to promote reconciliation in a society ravaged by genocide.

Of course, this fellow was neither self-righteous nor confrontational and the disdain I had imputed to him was but the projection of my own intellectual self-hatred. I had devoted my 20s to earning a PhD in German Studies writing papers on Batman, the Nazis, Hans Holbein the Younger, Charles Manson, Goethe, etc., and, although I thoroughly enjoyed myself, had never been able to shake the feeling that studying history and literature, film and philosophy, was a bourgeois indulgence that served no purpose other than vanity, at its best, and the highly refined reinforcement of dominant norms and ideologies at its worst. (That last part is particularly ironic for me, given the popular view of academia as the royal roost of tenured radicals.)

“How,” you may ask, “could you have spent seven years doing something most people don’t spend one second doing when you thought that it was a bogus privilege, a trivial pursuit?”

How, indeed.

Image Courtesy of rogiro.

The Joker

3288542484_d020daa685I may be late to the party, but I always have a good time.

See, I final caught Heath Ledger’s swan song in The Dark Knight and, like many people, his performance as the Joker really got under my skin.

Weird, damaged, and menacingly off-kilter, Ledger’s Joker embodies everything that Western rationalism apparently opposes and inevitably calls forth.

Unlike those shadowy figures who are thus labeled, this Joker is a terrorist in the most literal sense of the word: his sole aim is the production of a blithely dehumanizing, sanity annihilating, shockingly atavistic terror, specifically, the terror evoked by abject encounters with the chaotic void from which all reality issues and to which it inexorably returns.

The film gets evil precisely right when the Joker says, “The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules.” From the standpoint of law and order, in either a secular or non-secular sense, the idea that there is no absolute line dividing right from wrong or good from evil is intolerable. To celebrate those acts condemned by the dominant system leaves its hierarchy of values in place; to reject the legitimacy of any hierarchy at all is satanic rebellion.

(On a side note, I hear in the Joker’s ethos the pragmatic view that an unconditional flexibility – no fixed, dogmatic rules  – provides the key to adaptive survival. Of course, the amorality of adaptation, which is really just an opportunistic and even accidental “going with the flow,” is what truly frightens opponents of evolutionary theory.)

The film gets chaos precisely wrong. The violence and mayhem orchestrated by the Joker undeniably reflects the pervading notion of chaos as unpredictable, unassimilable, and overwhelming activity, but therein lies its error. True disorder is not characterized by a lot of something happening, but rather by a lot of nothing happening.

Indeed, the most accurate image of chaos we can muster is the heat death which awaits us as the entropic end of it all. When there is no longer any difference in energy states anywhere in the universe the pure state of chaos has been attained and it is, by definition, indistinguishable from nothingness. (Of course, this is why reviewers were unanimous in designating the Joker’s worldview “nihilistic.”)

By taking the side of the entropic decay and unstoppable disintegration of order, the Joker aligns himself with the grinding momentum of reality itself. It’s also why he is, as he says, “ahead of the curve,” and always one step ahead of Batman and the police; reality’s motion, its long march towards total dissolution is always one step ahead of us. We can never overtake it and are always, in the end and even before, overtaken.

Yet, it is this fact, the ultimate source of the Joker’s power, which also makes Batman’s adherence to his “one rule” truly heroic, though in the tragic sense. Belief in the timeless and unquestionable validity of “the rule” requires the denial of reality (that all rules are provisional, conventional, mutable ) and is, insofar, utter folly. Nevertheless, the faith expressed in devotion to “the rule” constitutes the stuff of valor and is, therewith, utterly human.

This raises the very question posed insistently and insidiously by the Joker as envisioned by Heath Ledger:

Does the unblinking acceptance of reality call for the overcoming of our humanity?

And if it does, should we?

Image Courtesy of Joan Thewlis.