Monday, March 23, 2009

Double Standard? Deaccessioning in Art and Music

Everybody who follows the art world at all knows that the National Academy museum in New York has been coming in for merciless criticism over its sale of two Hudson River School paintings to raise money for basic operating expenses. The Association of Art Museum Directors has prohibited its members from entering into any collaboration with the NA. The so-called "deaccessioning" of holdings to pay operating expenses is like the cardinal sin of the museum community. And there are some good reasons for this; for example: (a) it suggests that the museum leadership is sitting on its duff instead of fundraising; (b) it sends an awful message to people who might contribute artworks with the intention of improving a particular museum's holdings; (c) it threatens to dismantle collections that were painstakingly built up over decades to represent a particular style or school (d) since the only works worth selling for this purpose are those of great merit which bring high prices, it is a sure road to the diminution of the status of the institution - a slippery slope, so to speak; and (e) it demoralizes patrons, staff, audiences, critics, and just about anyone else the museum might count as its base of support.

Whew! Plenty to be concerned about, there. The NY State Legislature has even begun to consider a bill that would legally prohibit deaccessioning to pay operating expenses. And though I personally doubt they would be able to prevent such sales, which can be executed under a variety of pretenses, there are more than enough examples to worry anyone who thinks that important collections have a life of their own and need to be preserved. In 2005 the New York Public Library sold a large number of paintings, including another Hudson River School work of inestimable cultural value to the area and the institution (
Asher Durand's "Kindred Spirits"). It ended up in the hands of Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton, who also wished to denude Fisk University of half their interest in a world-class collection of Georgia O'Keefe paintings. With the full complicity of the university Board, who pleaded financial distress, she hoped to stash some of them in her Crystal Bridges museum in Arkansas. If Arkansas travellers can smuggle some artworks out of the NYPL, maybe we can kidnap some backporch country fiddlers and move a couple of swamps to Queens? (What's that you say - Queens already has enough swamps?) And in what must be the Nightmare on Elm Street of deaccessioning, Brandeis University recently announced that they would close the highly regarded Rose Art Museum due to a budget shortfall, and use the money to improve "arts education" (there's plenty of art in Beantown, they reasoned, so who needs this particular collection?)

And now for something not completely different: everybody who follows the music world knows that in 2007 the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra sold its recently acquired collection of classic Cremonese instruments. All sorts of shenanigans accompanied the acquisition of the instruments in 2003, including a gross overestimate of the value of the collection by the seller, Herbert Axelrod, questions about the authenticity of some of them, and doubts about the appraisal process. What is not in question, though, is that the NJSO in one leap became an orchestra renowned for its string sound (something it took the Philadelphia Orchestra many years to achieve), and the repository of a substantial share of the greatest violins ever made. Yet in 2007 the orchestra sold the collection to pay down debt and support future operating expenses. The collection, some 30 historic string instruments including several Stradivaris and del Gesus, was purchased by hedge fund managers Seth and Brook Taube. The twin bankers, whose Columbus Nova Partners fund was allegedly closed for poor performance, helped themselves to two Strads and gave the orchestra a 5-year loan on the rest.

For this act of deaccessioning, the NJSO was not roundly criticized in the press or condemned by their peers. No professional organization said, "okay, don't lend these guys any instruments". They were not censured by critics or made the goats of music bloggers. So - double standard, or what? Think about it. A museum's "product" is the display of art. An orchestra's "product" is the performance of music. The art that a museum collects gives it a particular strength, or personality. The orchestra's strength or personality is more complex, and depends on the type of music it performs, the skills of its players, and the personalities of the conductors it has had; but the instruments it acquires and uses are definitely a part of the mix, and perhaps the main component of the tonal qualities of its sound. Many orchestras will purchase or commission instruments according to certain principles of sound or taste. So the presence of 30 of the world's greatest string instruments on one stage is not exactly a minor aspect of the orchestra's sound. Replacing them with other, more modern and less sonorous, instruments is comparable to to the Metropolitan Museum saying, "You know, we could really fix the bottom line here if we just get rid of these Rembrandts and Vermeers and pull up some of that French neo-classical stuff out of the basement".

Now let's go back to some of the arguments against deaccessioning in the museum world: (a) it suggests that the museum leadership is sitting on its duff instead of fundraising (this would see to apply equally well in the music world); (b) it sends an awful message to people who might contribute artworks with the intention of improving a particular museum's holdings (contribution of instruments may be a less typical situation in music, but the argument is equally coherent when it applies); (c) it threatens to dismantle collections that were painstakingly built up over decades to represent a particular style or school (less compelling in this case, since this particular collection was acquired all at once and deaccessioned fairly quickly) (d) since the only works worth selling for this purpose are those of great merit which bring high prices, it is a sure road to the diminution of the status of the institution (ditto for an orchestra with a collection of fine instruments); and (e) it demoralizes patrons, staff, audiences, critics, and just about anyone else the museum might count as its base of support (no question the same applies in this case, in spades).

In fact, let's be blunt, the Axelrod transaction put the NJSO on the cultural map for the first time in its history, allowing it to compete for audience with the far more famous orchestra across the Hudson, and was an important factor in their ability to lure a world class conductor, Neeme Jarvi. And let's not forget, the National Gallery sold off two major paintings, and had plans (apparently now abandoned) to sell off a few more; whereas NJSO sold off what was essentially the single most important physical component of its sound!

But there are other facts that make this decision more complicated. Bringing the sound of the rest of the orchestra in line with what amounts to one of the most resonant string sections in the world
certainly would take a concerted (nyuk nyuk :-) effort. I suppose the storage, security and insurance costs must be considerable. The sale was executed only a few years after the purchase, before one could say that it was part of the NJSO tradition. And of course one can now add the standard recessionist logic, in-these-difficult-times-one-must-be-prepared-to-make-tough decisions: if they had not sold them when they did, would they be able to survive a major economic crisis?

All this, however, doesn't quite cut it as a reason to sell off the collection for operating expenses. For one thing, by the time the 5-year loan is up, the orchestra will have been using the collection for about 10 years. Those years will have been the ones in which the orchestra first drew serious attention in the music world, gained new status and audiences, and perhaps even lured a few of us across the river to check out the new sound. (I admit I have not gone to hear them yet, but it's been on my agenda. Like going to the Barnes Collection before they deaccession their original quarters. Even the Parrot can't take wing and fly to every worthwhile cultural event in this area.) Furthermore, none of these excuses would have been accepted in the art world as a reason to sell holdings in order to pay debt or operating expenses. That is considered just bad management, selling what will attract people tomorrow in order to pay what you owe today. Fool's gambit, is the thinking over in artland.

So what to make of all this? My basic instinct is that all the arguments and assumptions aren't getting to the heart of the problem, which seems to always lie a little below the surface of the institutional fracas. What it's about is that in a world where more and more people are willing to trade slot cars for video games, guitars for Guitar Hero, real life for Second Lives, real books for Kindles, real friends for Facebook "friends" and real thought for Twitters, cultural institutions have by default been saddled with the incredibly serious task of reminding us that our longstanding cultural traditions are actually still just as important as they always were, indeed moreso. They are, like it or not, responsible for reminding us that this painting, that building, that piece of music, are part of who we are - as persons, as New Yorkers (or even New Jerseyans, I guess), as Americans,
and why we should care that this is so. It is to our collective benefit, as I see it, that certain things which have inherent value and help define us should simply persist; that they don't just go away and turn into something else, become virtual or get replaced with some cheapened version after dumbing down the audience so much that they barely notice the difference. This is the burden that our museums, publishing houses, orchestras, landmark commissions and other cultural institutions have to bear. To protect what is there, sometimes for no more than the simple reason that it has been there for a long time, and that the place where it is is admired partly because this or that symbol is there and carries with it the sense of place and of tradition, is a responsibility of those who are entrusted with our cultural heritage. And that includes not only museums and libraries, but universities, who merit additional calumny for pigheadedness in posing a false dichotomy between a cultural trust and the bottom line. (Ultimately you can thank Reagan and his "revolution" for this, as that is the source of the ideological migration of university boards from seeing financial accountability as serving educational goals in the broadest sense, to seeing it as a justification for stripping away tenured chairs and academic freedom, as well as abandoning cultural leadership.)

I would say this preservationist sensibility even applies to something like Yankee Stadium, which, if there weren't plenty of other reasons to question the value for the City of replacing it, ought to have been preserved for no other reason than that it is one of America's historic ballparks and has been associated with one of America's most historic baseball teams. (I didn't ask whether you like them; I'd probably say the same about Fenway Park or Wrigley Field, FYI. Squawck!) The point is, it is incumbent on every cultural institution to be a sort of levee against gratuitous change; to the extent possible, the only change should be in the direction of enrichment of what is there already, not the utilitarian swapping of art or instruments or other cultural treasures for short term gains.

Do I think that any institution that ever sold anything to pay expenses should be condemned? No. If the question is really survival in a diminished form rather than disappearance off the face of the earth, we may have to accept the smaller loss. But even that is not an absolute truth. The O'Keefe paintings were given to Fisk wth the express mandate that they may not be sold - ever. It appears that the intent here is simply that the works shall not be used as collateral, regardless of the circumstances. This is not in the least mitigated by the shool's economic plight, and O'Keefe's heirs were right to sue to recover the works. (Though the judge's decision that the university must neither sell them nor return them was, at least for the time being, the best solution.) Moreover, to say that survival is really at stake reqires being intimately familiar with the finances, fundraising history, and possible alternatives for an institution. When I was a student at the Mannes College of Music, there was an effort to merge the school with the much larger Manhattan School of Music uptown. This was supposed to be an effort to "save" the school; it's financial condition was allegedly deteriorating, and Manhattan would have the resources to support much of Mannes and its staff. To make a long story short, the Board of Directors that made this decision was sued, removed by the Court for failure to carry out their fiscal responsibilities, and replaced with a new Board that was actually committed to the school. The merger effort was a kind of deaccessioning, not just of the building, which was soon abandoned anyway, but of the musical traditions that informed the school since it was founded. Mannes has a distinctive theoretical tradition and pedagogical philosophy, and this would have been diluted at best, or in all probability swallowed whole, as it was effectively collapsed into the Manhattan School curriculum. Ultimately, a much less toxic merger with the New School allowed Mannes to maintain its independence and musical traditions while obtaining the financial resources of a major university.

So, it is far from clear that every time an institution's board jumps up and says, "Sell, sell! We are deeply in debt!" everyone must pull out their handkerchiefs and weep for the troubled institution, or look the other way while they pawn their prized possessions. The presumption should not be one of innocence, but of guilt: boards are a mixture of wealthy, well-meaning and committed individuals, and lazy, rich, obstructive, neurotic and self-interested attention-getters and status-seekers. No one can know who is winning at any given moment, but when the Board says they just can't raise enough money or hire competent enough managers to keep the institution going without deaccessioning, it's time to be suspicious.

And it is not only lack of fundraising initiative that should be looked into. In the case of the National Academy, part of the story was the temporary replacement of the museum's Director with someone who had nonprofit management and fundraising experience, but no experience in the art world. The problem only intensifies when the board is responsible to a higher entity like a university, whose primary mission is not that of the cultural institution, and whose financial goals may at times conflict with its commitment to cultural goals. For any number of reasons, our instinct should be to keep things where they are. That won't always be right, and it won't always be possible, but we should have to be thoroughly convinced before we give up the principle and accede to deaccessioning.

So, there you go: another art-and-the-public-interest post from your friendly local Parrot. If I didn't have two other blogs, three or four books to write, an album to record and a fulltime job, I could get used to this. Or maybe I could deaccession one or two of my six lives and learn to focus. It is tempting.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Examined Film: Review of Astra Taylor's "The Examined Life"

"The place of philosophy in modern public life" - that is the phrase I remember catching my attention from some web site for this film (though it is not on this one), convincing me that this must be an important film, and one that neatly intersects my mission here. Would that that impression were justified by what I just saw at the IFC theater in Manhattan. After 20 years as a professional philosopher - a bit more studying some of the leftist literature that informs some of the subjects of this film - my reaction was to wonder if it could possibly have been as dull for those viewers not already saturated with the intellectual content conveyed here.

Let me first say this: I have known, or met, philosophers who I would not hesitate to spend hours listening to; chewing the fat with over a beer; or just passing the time with in idle conversation that might range from Quine to Brahms to memorable camping trips. I do not limit this class of people to my personal friends or classmates. I mean people, for example, like Sidney Morgenbesser (a true character in the best Socratic sense) or Marx Wartofsky (who was really the last Renaissance man), both unfortunately resting in Plato's heaven, or
David Pears, to the best of my knowledge alive and well and living in England, any of whom could hold court or be the subject of anecdotes for hours on end. I mean people like Daniel Dennett, Jerry Fodor, Hilary Putnam, Eddy Zemach, Bas van Frassen, Stephen Davies, Jerrold Levinson, Stephen Toulmin, or indeed the Brooklyn native who made the phrase "the examined life" famous as the title of one of his books, Robert Nozick. I don't mean that these are my favorite philosophers - not by a long shot, in many cases - but they are people I have met or heard and who I know can hold the attention of of an audience, have interesting things to say on many subjects, and might just convince a film audience that there are philosophers, neither superstars, crackpots, nor stuffed shirts, who are capable of taking them on a tour of reality or morality that goes just a bit deeper than what they are used to. They speak with passion, humor, and erudition, without being pompous, boring, obscure or intentionally asinine.

But it seems as if Taylor was not looking for good film subjects, but rather for philosophers who fit a certain conception of who would have something to say to a mass audience: feminists, multiculturalists, Marxists, gender theorists, literary theorists, African-American philosophers, or animal liberationists. Forget those stodgy, mainstream Anglo-American analytic types, who would want to hear them? And actually, that's largely true - who would want to hear most of them? But then again, who would want to hear a Continental or Marxist philosopher, or some slightly outré ethicist, who is trying to sound very important and relevant and only succeeds in restating their well-worn theories (because it is all they really know how to talk about)?

That, unfortunately, describes quite a bit of what Ms. Taylor captured on film. Here is Peter Singer walking ever so appropriately down Fifth Avenue, commenting on the wildly extravagant designer items, then standing in the Diamond District, etc., and calling forth references from "Famine, Affluence and Morality" and Animal Liberation that he has been working for about 35 years now. There is Martha Nussbaum going on, predictably, about Aristotle and virtue and feminist ethics, with about as much connection to the audience as a passing cloud. Michael Hardt, co-author of Empire (with Antonio Negri), ponders his failed revolutionary impulses in the 1980's and sets about thinking, in terms no more enlightening than the average activist's park bench conversation, how one can be pro-democracy and pro-revolutionary, or how one can be revolutionary at all in the face of global capitalism. Yawn. In his book, if I have gleaned his views correctly (I have not read it, but I've read several discussions of it), Hardt says that globalization is, in spite of itself, the crucible in which the new democratic society will be born. This is just an updated version of the old "revisionist" idea about how democratic socialism will come about (not a "communist manifesto for the 20th century" as it is sometimes called), but more on that later.

Though other reviewers have been duly reverential towards the sequence in which gender theorist Judith Butler takes a walk, goes shopping, and meditates on bodies and movement in the company of the filmmaker's physically impaired, wheelchair-bound sister Sunaura Taylor, while trying to say very meaningful and supportive things, I found it artificial, cloying and in some spots bordering on condescending. You cannot somehow normalize physical impairments that affect a small portion of the population by meditating on the limitations of bodies in general; all you can do is encourage those unfolding social and scientific developments that give people with physical limitations greater degrees of physical and social freedom, and permit them to participate in ever greater degrees in the type of activities that most of us consider normal, and rewarding. And you don't need a philosopher or gender theorist to do that, just a reasonably sensible and sensitive person. But more than that, in my view, the only dialogic stance that truly delegitimizes and undermines discrimination and prejudice against physically disabled persons is to treat them as exactly equal partners in respect of that asset which is not disabled, i.e., their minds. And that is not what I heard here; rather, I received the impression of a philosopher utilizing a dialogue with a disabled person to create a platform for her own ideas about bodies and movements. At other points she seemed to assent to what Sunaura Taylor said with benign reassurance but little critical consideration. Throughout the conversation I felt a lack of give and take, as if there had been a pact not to challenge one another's presuppositions, or engage in a real exchange of views. Perhaps this reflects the caregiver view of ethics, which is at the heart of the feminist approach, and emphasizes allegedly female virtues of nurture and loyalty to the circle of human beings closest to you. But respecting the dignity of persons also means not patronizing them in the way we patronize children and others for whom we are responsible. The responsible caregiver, be it a mother, nurse, social worker or home attendant, must limit the respect they show for the dignity and independence of the person in their care. Otherwise they will not be effective when they need to make decisions on that person's behalf. That ethical model does not work for normal adult relationships.

Other sequences in this film involved a pretty dry, academic set of thoughts from Avital Ronell, an NYU literary theorist who could not resist the urge to drag Heidegger into the proceedings, ending up sounding like she did not quite get this idea of philosophers (we are applying the term loosely) standing in front of a camera and saying something to a mass audience. As for Slavoj Zizek, who makes an appearance in this film after having a Taylor film of his own, he comes off as a slightly incoherent nutcase who enjoins us to love the piles of garbage among which he has chosen to be filmed for his sequence. Indeed, we are to despise the notions of nature and ecology and embrace filth and excess as the key to overcoming global warming and other environmental threats. This is the type of philosopher who should be kept as far from public view as possible, lest the world at large confirm its prejudice to the effect that philosophers are people whose job is to confuse others by arguing that absurd things are true. Be that as it may, I think there is something resembling a coherent point underlying Zizek's charades, only it would be a minor miracle if anyone understood it from this film. Again, I'll come back to this later.

I have left two people for last: Kwame Anthony Appiah, on whose contributions I'm afraid I can't comment because they came at a time when I had briefly given up trying to prop my eyelids open; and Cornell West, whose wide-ranging and wildly intertextual remarks provided the one bright spot in the film, though their import seems to have passed by most of the reviewers and for that reason probably a bit of the audience as well. While ranging over the history of art and ideas from Plato to Goethe and on through Charlie Parker and the Beatles, West focused his remarks primarily on the idea of life as a space between nonexistence and death, and emphasized the ways in which we give that brief flash of spirit some meaning and make it worth holding onto. Taylor wisely edited West's engaging remarks into several sequences, interspersed around the others, which at least broke the monotony of the other lifeless talking heads as they either failed to focus or rehearsed well-worn ideas in stiff language. While West's parts may not have been perfect, especially for indulging in a lot more references than necessary to make his points, he at least gave a hint of what a philosopher can do when he has a command of popular as well as intellectual culture and has actually thought a bit about life, death, and our place on earth.

While Zizek did display a certain fervor, what really attracted our attention with him was waiting for a payoff that never came, as he tried to convince us that trash on stilts is way cooler than ordinary waste and pollution. Personally I find it extremely unfortunate when philosophers stake out baldly idiotic positions to demonstrate that philosophy can see deeper into the nature of reality than ordinary common sense. It can, but that ain't how. But let's try to tie things together a bit, because there is a little more here than mere antics for the sake of getting attention. We can start by going back to Hardt and his globalization fetish. Since at least the Utopian socialism of the 19th century, t
here has been a way of thinking about the good (social democratic) society as a kind of algae, or mold, that under the right conditions grows outward from one or more initial sites until it swallows everything in its wake. The Utopian societies were supposed to do this, spreading socialism by example. Then Eduard Bernstein contributed the idea of capitalism "evolving" into socialism. Karl Kautsky conceived of an "ultra-imperialism" that spread peace due to its very reach. Even Lenin suggested that in the globalization of finance capital, the organizational framework of socialism was being incubated in the womb of international capitalism. But Lenin, unlike the others, never imagined that this globalization of capital would just roll over into socialism without a violent revolution.

The core idea that seems to be repeated in Hardt's view is that the endless penetration of capitalism into every corner of the world, and the ever-growing neural network of connections between people and nations, is destined to finally evolve into a vast world culture in which war, racism and other conflicts are submerged in the interest of the great global leviathan. But while these conflicts are removed, the fundamental exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie
remains - a kind of 1984-ish dystopia in which the underlying injustice of the whole system is hidden beneath the surface of harmony and uniformity. Hardt's and Negri's main contribution seems to be the idea that we can push this capitalist leviathan to the brink of self-destruction by pushing the democratic logic it hypocritically represents as its own as far as it can go. (This too is not a very original idea, but never mind.) Thus they suggest certain key democratic demands we can make within the framework of capitalism to help the system undermine itself.

So what does this have to do with Zizek? Well, first, he wrote a lengthy article about Hardt's and Negri's book in the journal Rethinking Marxism, in which he accused them of not going far enough in rejecting the logic of capitalism. Zizek suggests that operating within the framework of demands that can be accommodated, if not entirely met, by capitalism itself is self-defeating. He therefore finds it unhelpful for revolutionaries to associate themselves with the progressive movements that capitalism (as the classic Marxist analysis has it) allows to flourish in order to "blow off steam". Environmentalism, as perhaps the movement of the moment, plays into the hands of capitalism by suggesting some sort of idealistic return to nature. Instead, Zizek thinks (not that his ideas are very clearly formulated, but this is the general drift) we should force the issue, let the contradictions of capitalism increase and destroy it from the inside. You see, it is essentially the same kind of Hegelian line, the new form of Being incubating within the old and then splitting it into opposites, the class struggle finally revealed for what it is. In a moment of inspired obfuscation and trendiness he somehow imagines the World Wide Web as the modern counterpart to Lenin's idea of capitalism preparing the framework of the new society and the seeds of its own destruction within itself. Okay, that's about as hip as Herbert Marcuse finding the source of socialist revolution in the student and intellectual movements of the 1960's.

Anyway, what I wanted to show is that Zizek's ultimately loony love affair with garbage follows the logic of a well-worn idea from the Communist Manifesto, that capitalism nourishes the germ of its own destruction within itself. From there it is an easy (but to me, long discredited) step to the idea that a true revolutionary should help capitalism make itself as bad as possible - love those discarded spring water bottles, my friends, rather than protesting them, for they are the spring of self-destruction of global capitalism, or something like that. I guess I should be honest and say I'm doing a lot of interpreting here. Zizek himself tends to stick to safer ways of putting his views, emphasizing that revolutionaries should reject the invitation to engage in the liberal-democratic critique of the shortcomings of "bourgeois democracy". But to give him credit for not being a self-contradictory lunatic means to take his views to be something like this. (I do wonder if he would tell us to love all those nuclear missiles too. I think Zizek's philosophy contains the seeds of its own destruction too.)

Okay, so much for political theory, which is not exactly in short supply in The Examined Life. But there is an aesthetic point here too. Zizek's rants about the virtues of garbage fit into a worldview that is just one step beyond that of Hardt. And this view obviously suggests that the various feminist, anti-racist, anti-discriminatory, post-colonial politics of the other interviewees are just what capitalism needs to continue to dominate us. The filmmaker, however, being apparently no less naive about political theory than philosophy, fails to give the audience any clue that this is the case. So while the rather boring and pedantic pastische of left-liberal interventions based on
Continental and feminist philosophical trends is disturbed from within by a philosophical and political rift, this is not even visible to the audience. There is, in effect, an intellectual fight going on here, with Zizek on one side, most of the others on the other side, and Hardt sort of moderating with a foot in both camps, but it might as well be one loose chain of vaguely related thoughts on ethics and society for all we can tell from the film itself.

It would be unfair not to mention that Taylor does attempt to use some aesthetic means to liven things up, encouraging constant movement during the interviews and letting the camera capture dozens of naturalistic images along the way. At its best, it gives us the impression that the generally ordinary landscapes trodden by the film crew and its subjects (few scenes other than those of the dump are more exotic than Central park) are as teeming with life as the philosophers' heads are teeming with ideas. Too bad the gulls and turtles are so much more interesting than most of the ideas that one wants to resist the camera's return to the philosophical promenades.

Another point, no more positive (I guess I am not feeling very charitable today, in case you hadn't noticed) is that Taylor makes only the most limited effort to guide or draw out the philosophers in ways that might get them thinking outside their predefined, well-rehearsed boxes. All I can really recall her asking, in various ways, is whether philosophy is a search for the meaning of life. The answer to this question was actually supplied so well by Cornell West that she should have left it alone for the rest of the film. The truth is, few philosophers know what to say to that question, because "meaning" itself can have so many meanings that it is not even clear what the question is. Is the "meaning" of life like the meaning of a sentence? of a work of art? of an act or event? Is the question implicitly asking if I believe in god?

My advice is, don't ask that question unless you are prepared to give a philosophical answer to the reply, "What kind of answer are you actually looking for?" Otherwise it is sort of a blank check - "say something, anything, about the meaning of life". And if I were to give an immediate answer to that, it could only be that in itself, it means about as much as a pointless film. Because either no one is directing it, or they are doing it without any clear sense of overall purpose. Which, I guess, is as good a place as any to end this review.

(Note: This post was originally published on Friday 3/6/09 at 2:06 a.m. After re-reading it I felt that it was much too sloppy, both in editing and expression of ideas. It returned to Edit mode after about 48 hours online. It is now republished with substantial alterations, mainly intended to clarify many of the original points.)