Black swans

In the new words department:

The disaster bureaucrats talk about black swans: calamities from out of the blue, terrible and strange. The world is now transfixed by the black swan disaster of Japan — an earthquake larger than seismologists thought could happen in that part of the country, leading to a tsunami too big for the sea walls, and now a nuclear crisis that wasn’t supposed to be possible.

via Japan’s ‘black swan’: Scientists ponder the unparalleled dangers of unlikely disasters – The Washington Post.

I like new terms that are not mere abstractions but vivid images.  “Black swan” gives us a picture of something that is very unlikely, but that occasionally, creepily, happens.  (It turns out, though, that there is a whole species of black swans in Australia that wasn’t discovered until the 18th century.)

See this for “black swan events”

Karl Popper uses the example of a black swan to show how, contrary to naive scientism, you can’t jump from the observation of particulars to make universal conclusions, but how particulars are useful to meet the criterion of falsifiability.

Then there is the ballet movie Black Swan, which plays off of some imagery in Tschaikovsky’s Swan Lake , but that’s different, positing in the white swan and the black swan a contrast between purity and sensuality.

Now that we apparently have a new word, what are some other rare, unexpected, and weird calamities that would qualify as black swans?

Law & Gospel at the movies

Anthony Sacramone discusses the movie Black Swan, which is about a ballerina’s tormented pursuit of perfection.  He then draws out the Law/Gospel connections:

The film is not subtle and Nina’s inner life, her delusions and paranoid fantasies, trace the borderline of camp. But what is really missing is a way out of this false dilemma between “perfection” and “failure.” Perfection is in the eye of the beholder, and so in order to achieve it one must always subordinate the self to some other authority, which, in this realm, is always, always fallible. It is a self-defeating exercise, because even if you think you’ve achieved it, give it a minute, and the criteria by which that perfection is judged will shift, and you’ll find yourself having to place catch-up. To be perfect is, by definition, to fail. And the ultimate failure is death.

Which is why we Lutherans have placed such emphasis on law/Gospel dichotomies. Every time gospel implies “You must” or “You must not,” it becomes a word of condemnation, of failure, because, with all do apologies to Yoda, “you can’t,” try as you might. The good news is that someone already did, and you can rest in his success as if it were your own. You can put yourself under his authority without fear of collapsing under its weight, because his yoke is easy and his burden is light. The price of admission to perfection is faith alone, because the cost of that admission was paid 2,000 years ago. And faith is never a work. Only believe.

But Nina never hears that word, drowned out as it is by the disparate and competing demands of “You must.”

via Black Swan: Law vs. Gospel » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog.


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