12.29.2008

Doubt

I just saw the best movie I've ever seen. I liked Doubt as much as I liked Nathaniel Hawthorne's "failed" novel The Marble Faun, which is one of my ten favorite books. Go see it. Then please tell me what you think.

12.22.2008

Bailout, schmailout! We need a fascist!

Because watching Commanding Heights takes six hours of concentration, and because learning about economic theory might take two hundred hours, the universe gives us Jon Stewart (starting around the 1:45 mark -- bonus points for naming the murdered czar and his family without Googling it, or for naming the mystic who warned them about it and who wouldn't die despite being riddled with bullets and dumped in a freezing river):

12.17.2008

Merry Christmas to All...

I have a hypothetical question that I'm trying to think through--want to play along?

Since reading Fenhopp's most recent inspired post about California's Prop. 8, and specifically about what seems to be a divide that's drawn especially deeply between generations, I've been thinking about one of Jesus' more enigmatic teachings (Luke 14:26): "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple."

That's one of those verses that you don't hear sermons built around very often. My interpretation involves a somewhat subtle understanding--Monica might even call it midrashic--of the word "hate." As I picture the disciples and followers listening to Jesus say these words I cannot imagine that he was speaking about a kind of verbal test that must be passed: "Do you hate your mother?" Ans: "Yes." Ans: "Then you can be my disciple."

Rather, I think there must be something about hating one's family (indeed one's own life) that is a kind of symptom of the psychological state that would lead one to be with/like Jesus.

If this teaching is understood in the context of social Justice, it might lead us to imagine Jesus as having an understanding of Justice that transcends the historical moment: perhaps it's not that Justice itself changes; but our ability to see it, and to keep track of it, may come and go as we mature and then grow old.

My latest objection to my parents' way of life has to do with food: they want to eat mashed potatoes and steak like it's still 1961 and I want to eat Thai food and steamed broccoli and raw almonds and pomegranates like it's 2012. I wouldn't say this leads me to "hate" them, but it might put me on the path.

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But: if we truly believe that there is a "seasonal-ness" to our ability to understand Justice, we might recognize that we are less entitled to the feeling of moral righteousness. I know that my grandparents were explicitly racist. Maybe by learning to "hate their parents," my parents largely rejected that ideology... but it was as much a product of the wheel in the sky (keeps on turnin'!) as it was of their deep sense of virtue. It's our turn now, and maybe equal rights for homosexual people is "at bat." The question is, is it possible to avoid becoming like our parents, who became like their parents? What is our blind spot? How is it possible that we will not be able to hear the voice of our children when it tells us, finally with passion, that we have been wrong? How can we "wise up" to avoid the generational trap?

Jesus has an answer: "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple."

Did you catch that?--even his own life! For now, though, have a happy Christmas.

12.15.2008

The Spirit Moves in Mysterious Ways; Or, "Doesn't that hurt?!"

They said not to film Dr. West, so I didn't -- but look at this undoctored picture I caught with my camera phone -- that's his arm, bending like Gumby's. Awesome. Most memorable quote: "The cross is always higher than any flag." My overall impression is that this man "gets it," but he's getting old. He talked a little tonight about how each generation must find its authentic voice by engaging in an ever-renewing dialogue with the voices of the past (pretty standard protestant theology, I suppose)... he cited Snoop Dogg as a good example of a dude who's found an authentic, original voice.

That's true, but that example sort of dates West in my view. It's not his fault. He must be getting up onto 70 -- but the dialectic is already bouncing in another direction. In any case, he's gotta be one of the most entertaining old men alive. It was good to see and feel Charlotte's young and wise out for a night of intellectual stimulation.

Going Rate for Prophecy: $25.00/two tickets

I'm going to see Cornel West tonight in the arts district of uptown Charlotte. I'll report back.

12.12.2008

Passing Observation

American adults are unbelievably neurotic when it comes to talking about sex and masturbation, and that is (in my judgment) undoubtedly a symptom of a diseased--or rather "uneasy"--culture.

12.11.2008

Good News

"I am a skeptic... Global Warming has become a new religion." - Nobel Prize winner for Physics, Ivar Giaever.

“Since I am no longer affiliated with any organization nor receiving any funding, I can speak quite frankly….As a scientist I remain skeptical.” - Atmospheric Scientist Dr. Joanne Simpson

[Warming fears are the] “worst scientific scandal in the history…When people come to know what the truth is, they will feel deceived by science and scientists.” - UN IPCC Japanese Scientist Dr. Kiminori Itoh, an award-winning PhD environmental physical chemist

As the tide shifts, so do I...

See my earlier post calling for a Scientific Reformation -- seems my wish is being granted.

Now that there is a growing (international) body of scientists who are dissenting against the view that global warming is an immanent, man-made threat, I want to make two points:

1. I'm happy to hear it. That was getting reeeeeee-diculous.
2. I hope now more than ever that people will understand the grandeur of Nature, and that they will work to keep it clean and renewable and in balance. Fear is never as good a motivator as love.

For a long time, I've been a closet-environmentalist: "closet" because I didn't want to be associated with the current majority view that holds that we're all going to drown in a sea of melting ice in ten years if we don't elect Al Gore international president of Nature. But as much as anyone I know, I love hiking in the woods, swimming in Lake Michigan, or the ocean, riding my bike through the fields of Indiana, and so on (I almost got carried away there). I hope that someday young kids'll go confidently to the edge of the Wabash or the Catawba river and drink from their cupped hands for refreshment.

Environmentalist policies are expensive, and some concessions to GDP will probably have to be made -- but I hope we continue purusing these policies even if the age of maybe-we're-not-all-gonna-die is upon us.

12.10.2008

I want FREEDOM!, and that's what you should want!

WARNING: In order to save myself some typing and my readers some critical thinking, I'm going to change the tone of this post... if it seems at times ideological, understand that it is only for the sake of expediency. In a subsequent post, I'd be happy to undermine my own conclusions here. Enjoy.

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The modern defense of small government, which is the defense of capitalism, begins with an almost simultaneous discovery in three different countries by Carl Menger, Leon Walras, and William Stanley Jevons (all between 1870-73). Their breakthrough involved a recognition of the fact that the value of a good or service depends entirely on utility (see below). At the time, this stood in contradiction (most obviously) to Marx's conception of value, which was labor-based.

The labor theory held that hours of labor were what invested an object with value. But followers of Marx were daunted by a theoretical objection called the "paradox of value," which pointed (for example) to the problem of stumbling upon a raw diamond, which was not the product of any labor hours, on the side of a mountain. Despite the fact that no labor went into producing the diamond, it's value was far greater than the value of (say) a dissertation, which may have taken 1200+ labor hours.

To answer, the "marginalists" presented an interesting scenario (I'm making this up, but it's along the lines of what they'd describe): Man A is stumbling through a desert, lost, about to die of thirst, when he stumbles upon Man B. Both men are wearing tattered clothing, and both are miles from an oasis. Man A is wearing a 3-carat diamond ring, but has nothing else. Man B has no ring, but has a full bottle of water. Despite the typical market values of the diamond and the glass of water, in this situation the water is clearly more valuable -- consequently, Man B will not trade his water for the diamond. So while Marx defined value as a combination between what he called "use-value" and "labor-value," the marginalists redefined utility (which is subjective) as the sole source of value.

Marginal utility refined these imaginary scenarios with difficult equations, but the crux of the matter involves a recognition that value is not inherent, but subjective. For those defending laissez-faire style government, the importance of understanding subjective value theory cannot be understated. In the layest of lay-terms, this discovery in economics might be understood as corresponding to a Nietzschean style revolution in ethical values: what were taken for hundreds of years previously to be unchanging and eternal (objective) values were reassessed in Nietzsche's proto-postmodernist worldview as being entirely constructed and therefore changeable (the timing of Nietzsche/Menger is not, I think, a coincidence). For a more theoretical description of all of this, libertarians would typically recommend Ludwig Von Mises' giant 1949 treatise, Human Action. The entire book is available for free (Austrians like Mises tend to oppose the notion of "intellectual property," incidentally), and I strongly recommend the introduction, which is easy to read and includes no mathematics.

The reason all of this (and trust me, this is a SHORT, short version) is so important is when we arrive at the practical questions of government. If individual people are understood to value goods and services differently, then the question of "distribution" becomes very complicated. To highlight the differences in the two (big & small gov't) approaches, imagine the extremes: on the one hand, laissez-faire free trade; on the other, soviet-style communism. In the market, prices function as indicators -- sort of like pressure valves. If there is great demand and low production of a certain good, the price will increase until (theoretically) some enthusiastic soul decides he can produce that good and turn a profit that he finds, subjectively, worthwhile... distribution problem solved. On the other hand, the czar has no direct indicators that works like the price system. He is faced with all sorts of questions: how many dolls should we produce for our children? How much oil should we produce? How many of our fields should be used for farming (and which foods?), how many should be used for factories (of what kind?), etc. Not to mention what qualities should our products (say, public education) have? Inevitably the sheer volume overwhelms the czar. For more on prices as necessary data, click here.

Of course, what we have in reality is a mixed-bag -- some government control, some intervention. Most importantly, we do have prices, and, at least in America, nobody is talking about turning away from the market altogether... isn't that good enough? This is the problem we're faced with today. The short defense of small government in a case like the auto industry in our mixed-economy situation is that intervention makes economic decision more uncertain: should you buy a Ford? The question "Do you think the government will bailout Ford again in two years?" is more difficult to answer than "What is Ford's financial situation?"

The two key concepts here are "spontaneous order" (see Hayek) and "creative destruction" (see Schumpeter). The capitalists look at an economic situation like Detroit and see a bloated, corrupt, broken industry. Just as the archetypal gothic inbred families of 18th century English novels were becoming outmoded and superceded, the auto industry (say the capitalists) should be allowed to fail. "Creative Destruction" is simply the process of letting the market do what it does... the procedure for an insolvent business is simply bankruptcy (Note: concerning the 3 million jobs lost: capitalists will point out that the rate of unemployment has been more or less stable in this country for a hundred years. People lose jobs, and new jobs are created, if only because there is a flood of cheap labor on the market in the aftermath. Hundreds of large corporations have failed in American history, and yet unemployment hovers around 5%. The "special objection" seems to stem from the sheer size of an industry like Detroit's, but if it's true that the bigger-they-are-they-harder-they-fall, should we just "get it over with," or let it get even bigger? Once you enter the "bailout" game you can't stop.).

For "spontaneous order," compare an unregulated phenomena like the internet or book publishing to a heavily-government-ordered organization like the (legendary) Post Office--or the DMV, or AMWAY, or your local health center, or public education. The idea that we can simply "incentivize" new industries is based on a kind of deceptive shuffling of the deck. The odd thing is that it IS actually possible to incentivize new industries, but it is always less efficient. A quick story to make my point (from a paper I wrote on Roger Williams, America's first Libertarian, sort of):

The fur trade was not at all alone in its becoming a target of the church. Although the higher-ups saw themselves as trying to assist merchants in spiritual protection, the fact is that these interventions were economic disasters waiting to happen. One of the most interesting examples was the “maximum wage” controversy of the 1630s. Because labor in the New World was extremely scarce, workers could demand very high wages and expect to find compensation. The conservative Gov. Winthrop, however, was not willing to let economics run its course; perhaps he was trying to artificially keep capital in the hands of the few. In any case, he complained in 1633 that, “the scarcity of workmen had caused them to raise their wages to an excessive rate” (qtd. in Rothbard 254). Here again we are confronted with that odd phrase: excessive rates. How was the governor able to recognize these rates as “excessive?” What would have been “just” rates? However he determined the proper cost of labor, Gov. Winthrop imposed a maximum wage control in Massachusetts and, just as raising minimum wage inevitably causes unemployment, setting maximum wage always leads to labor shortages. In addition to trying to fix wage rates, the confused Massachusetts oligarchy tried to respond by also fixing the cost of consumer goods – mostly notably corn, which was the “major monetary medium of the North” (Rothbard 256). Bernard Bailyn summarizes the debacle nicely: “still insisting on the theory of universally equitable wage- and price-levels,” the General Court was despairing of its own regulations (33). By 1635, the theocracy gave up the inefficient and largely unenforceable price and wage-fixing, but undertook a new and equally ineffective measure:
…under the cloak of a desire to ‘combat monopolizing,’ the Massachusetts government created a legal monopoly of nine men—one from each of the existing towns—for purchasing any goods from incoming ships. This import monopoly was to board all the ships before anyone else, decide on the prices it would pay, and then buy the goods and limit itself to resale at a fixed five percent profit. (Rothbard 257)
In his discussion of the import monopoly, Bernard Bailyn focuses on the impossibility of enforcement, arguing that it would have been unrealistic to hope that the merchants would only sell to these nine buyers when others were willing to buy and perhaps even pay more (34). It must be understood that all of this – hypocritically or not – was part of the more general ideology that suggested that officials could “use the State’s means to make men worship rightly” (Garrett 191). We are likely, in retrospect, to assume that the officials were playing at market for their own gain, using the rhetoric of insistence on religious piety as their cover. But the powerful question formulated by Roger Williams was not “is there a just price,” but “by whom are these admonitions to be given” (Bloudy Tenent 33). In short, who is qualified to know the just price or the just wage in every situation?

Yes, "Maximum Wage." And: see how the state becomes the dispenser not only of goods and services, but also of "spiritual" and ethical values? The notion of the "Just Price" is fun to explore -- developed by Aquinas, it was the Catholic church's "check" on injustice in economics for almost 500 years... The point is just what I tried to explain at the end: the problem of "big government" is always the same: who is qualified to know, and how will they know? Seems John Winthrop was unqualified. Certainly not Henry Paulson. Can we trust Lawrence Summers? Who's the new auto-czar going to be? Will he know better than the Japanese auto-market what cars to make in 2010? What should the minimum wage be, and does it matter that raising it will cause unemployment?

Two points to conclude: a small-government attitude is fundamentally suspicious of utopian discourse, based on the assumptions that resources are limited, and values are subjective (no single policy could answer to everyone's values...). Secondly, everything I've presented here is an amateurish representation of a truly enormous body of literature that simply cannot be "done justice" in a blog post. To get a basic education in libertarian economics would require reading Menger, Von Mises, Schumpeter, Freidman, F.A. Hayek (nobel prize winner), and Murray Rothbard (not to mention a deep knowledge of American and soviet economics in the 20th century). I genuinely don't say this to establish a kind of "You're-too-uneducated-to-question-this/this-is-best-left-to-experts-view" tone, but only out of a genuinely felt sense of ethical obligation to the economists I've studied. To conclude:
It is important to remember that government interference always means either violent action or the threat of such action. The funds that a government spends for whatever purposes are levied by taxation. And taxes are paid because the taxpayers are afraid of offering resistance to the tax gatherers. They know that any disobedience or resistance is hopeless. As long as this is the state of affairs, the government is able to collect the money that it wants to spend. Government is in the last resort the employment of armed men, of policemen, gendarmes, soldiers, prison guards, and hangmen. The essential feature of government is the enforcement of its decrees by beating, killing, and imprisoning. Those who are asking for more government interference are asking ultimately for more compulsion and less freedom. --from Ludwig Von Mises' Human Action
P.S. -- anyone interested enough to read my 20-page paper on Roger Williams, morality, freedom, and economics is welcome to... we'll arrange that via email.

Ugh.

Here's an excerpt from a intro. composition student's final exam -- an in-class essay dealing (supposedly) with Hannah Arendt's essay on "Total Domination":
One of the worst ways government has influenced people would have to be in Germany during World War II. Through blaming their economic problems on the Jews and by public humimaltion, The nazi government put millions of Jews in concentration camps, and killed millions of them because of hate. Which all started though the government. That the Jews were the problem, when they were not. That kind of influence is bad and should not be totalitrated by the people.

"Feeling Cramped? Take an Atlas Shrugged and call me in the morning..."

I've been joking behind the scenes with a friend about artistic appreciation and what might be called (very unnecessarily) "Reception Theory." The questions are like this, "Do good prophets require good apostles?" and "if a parable falls in the woods with nobody around to hear...."

With another (blogless) friend I've been talking about an old favorite of mine, Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. This friend (age 30) just read it for the first time, and thought (as I did at age 20) that it was the best novel he'd ever read. This friend was so excited that he sent me a message declaring, "I remember you told me to read that book ten years ago -- I don't know what I was thinking waiting so long! I'll read anything you recommend starting now."

I have a mixed reaction about this: part of me remembers how much I enjoyed Rand's books when I was 20-years old. Another part of me remembers how I "escaped" (Rand is notorious for having cultish followers): I trusted Rand's artistic sensibility. I read some of her non-fiction, in which she panned a number of authors and praised a few. The few included Nietzsche, Victor Hugo, Dostoevsky, Hawthorne (sort of), as well as musicians like Rachmaninoff and painters like Dali (again, sort of). At the time, I was looking to read other stuff, but I didn't want to waste my time on the bad stuff.

What I found, of course, were all of the books that I've come to love. Indeed, I suppose I could be accused of never having escaped Rand's influence. In any case, although I remember the thrill of reading her books for the first time at age 20, I never read any of her work twice, and I'm not sure I want to keep recommending it to my friend. Maybe he would like Hugo? Maybe.

Back to my first friend: he said in a recent message that he can't be sure what kinds of literature will appeal to me -- "only you know (that)," he explained. Probably. But why should this be so? Why can't we prescribe "next books" effectively, by combining our knowledge of literature with our knowledge of a person?

This has been a long way of saying, "Hmmm...." I was trying to follow up on a promise in an earlier post concerning what I called "Vulnerability." That's forthcoming, and very much related to this failed post.

12.08.2008

Learning to Listen Better

See the "About Me" box over there? ----->

I doubt anyone'll take the trouble to do this, but I enjoyed this podcast so much myself that I feel an obligation to the woman who delivered it -- her name is Tara Brach, and the Podcast is one of my favorites, Zencast. Her lecture is titled "Learning to Listen Deeply," and it is a crystal-clear enunciation of what I've come to believe about life, ethics, divinity, etc. You can get the lecture through iTunes, or click here to get it from the interweb. The lecture takes 50 minutes.

I know the guided meditation at the end will be "a little much" for some, but you listen to what you can listen to, I guess.

12.05.2008

Jesus, His Interpreters, and Gay People (again!?)

Who doesn't love following a good schizsm? Click here. Very teachable (how do we recognize G-d's will? What is authority? How important is interpretation? Is Divine Justice eternal or changing?, etc.) My favorite line in the article:
[The split] would also result in two competing provinces on the same soil, each claiming the mantle of historical Anglican Christianity.
Seems like kind of a dusty mantle whichever way you split it, to me...

[UPDATE] -- At the center of the controversy about how the Anglican Church will be constituted is the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. He's an impressive figure ( PC, DD, DCL, FBA) who seems to hold a number of intriguing positions on the "use" of orthodoxy. Check out his wikipedia page if you're interested. By far the coolest thing you'll discover there is that Rowan Williams just published (Baylor University Press, 2008) a book titled, Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction. I can hardly believe nobody has written a book with that title before -- so obvious! You can read the first few pages thanks to Amazon's "Look Inside" function. Check it out. Williams starts with an examination of one of Dostoevsky's most famous (-ly perplexing) statements: "if someone were to prove to me that Christ was outside the truth, and it was really the case that the truth lay outside Christ, then I should choose to stay with Christ rather than with the truth."

Wow, huh?

12.04.2008

Looking to Practice Listening?

As I've mentioned, listening (a term I haven't sufficiently defined, and that I might emphasize by using the phrase "authentic listening," or something) is at or near the center of what I imagine to be ethical living. I'm happy I just found this good website, Bloggingheads.tv... it gives me another nice opportunity to practice listening. Here's a good example: watch them listen to each other, and (maybe) catch yourself listening to them. It's good.

12.03.2008

Interconnectedness as the Foundation of Ethics

Both Wearing Black Masks is now going to quote Radhakrishnan, who, responding to Albert Schweitzer's critique of Hindu ethics, "favorably quotes" Dr. Paul Deussen, who is ultimately quoted in Daniel Zielinkski's 2007 article appearing in Journal of Religious Ethics (35.2: 291-317):
The Gospels quite correctly establish as the highest law of morality, "Love your neighbour as yourselves." But why should I do so since by the order of nature I feel pain and pleasure only in myself, not in my neighbour? The answer is not found in the Bible but in the Veda, in the great formula That art Thou which gives in three words the combined sum of metaphysics and morals. You shall love your neighbour because you are your neighbour [quoted in Kripal 2002, 30-33] (my italics added, for irony).
How's that for interconnecteness?

A Set-Up for Follow-Ups

An ancient Zen koan that I just invented asks, "What do two Bodhisattvas say to each other when they are alone together?"

...Because the difficulty of talking about mystical experiences is that if you claim to have had the experience, listeners who have not had a mystical experience will hear pridefulness in your words -- they will ask themselves: "Who is he to tell me how to get enlightened?" On the other hand, if you pretend not to have had a mystical experience for the sake of ethos (because psychosis is a more common diagnosis than "prophet," and it's much easier to dismiss) you are vulnerable to the charge of being no more informed than anyone "on the outside looking in." Furthermore, it seems bizarre that you would need to rely on fiction to lead a horse to the Tr-th. It's also possible that you think you've had a mystical experience, but you really haven't. Finally, in speaking about mystical experiences, you run the risk of assuming that almost nobody else has had the mystical experience, when it is very possible that almost everyone has. If, for example, most people have relatively-calm mystical/transformative experiences during puberty but you, for whatever reason, do not have your experience until your late 20s, you may mistakenly believe that no one else has had the experience you have had simply because none of your 20-something friends are having mystical experiences.

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Here are three different tellings of a mystical experience:

Here's the first:
But it so happened, that those boats, without seeing Pip, suddenly spying whales close to them on one side, turned, and gave chase; and Stubb's boat was now so far away, and he and all his crew so intent upon his fish, that Pip's ringed horizon began to expand around him miserably. By the merest chance the ship itself at last rescued him; but from that hour the little negro went about the deck an idiot; such, at least, they said he was. The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely, though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God's foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad. So man's insanity is heaven's sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God. (from Moby-Dick, chapter 93)
Here's the second:
I am imagining the outlines of an interesting story, or a novel: It would be a first person narrator, and I would name him after myself, and his childhood would be somewhere between middle-class and spoiled, like my own. It would be about the arrival of a mysterious religious teacher around the time the narrator is 23 or 24-years old – so I would tell about how “I” left home for graduate school in another state at age 23, and lived alone in an unimpressive apartment – about how I took to studying old literatures quite seriously – about how I at first grew fat, then discovered self-regulation – and about how, around that time, a man (probably, tho’ perhaps a woman) appeared on the fringes of my life: perhaps he was a professor at school, or a bum who sat across the street from the bookstore, then later (when he was forced to move for construction), across the street from the new Business and Economics building.

The teacher would move closer to the first person narrator – though he would always remain indirectly influential. His teachings would be elusive at best, or altogether impersonal, but his lesson would come into focus over the course of many months and years. Eventually, the student, the “I” of the novel, would discover the most ancient of all holy and universal thoughts – he would discover the thought that passes all understanding. Guided, purposely or unintentionally by his marginal teacher, he would first begin renouncing the world. He would take no pleasure in objects. He would have difficulty at parties because he would begin to have difficulty with interpersonal communication. The speaker would then enter into a phase where his academic interest became intertwined with a loosely spiritual practice. He would detach further. Eventually he would awake one morning, unable to understand the words “I” and “you” for a relatively fleeting, but psychologically momentous, period of time. All distinction would cease. His dormant Buddha-nature (or whatever) would be awakened, and he would see the Oneness of all things, as all mystics in all centuries and cultures have seen it. He would feel that in that grand moment of Mind, in that moment that exploded all previous experience, he was faced with a choice -- that he must do violence to either himself or to others. And he would recall, later, only that he chose precisely neither, that (instead) on the third of three sleepless nights he lay on his back, next to his fiancee refusing to obey the seeming command to do violence to himself or to her. It would occur to him less than a week after that frightening night that he had chosen correctly (!) -- that he had refused the choice, and in doing so, had essentially proven himself capable of that highest of high thoughts: "Not my will, but thy will, be done."
And here is the third:
When I was in graduate school I started reading a bunch of semi-spiritual autobiographies because I did not find myself moved by what I perceived to be the inherent nihilism of contemporary theory and literature. I don't know how to account for it -- I had been exercising regularly, though eating rather unhealthy, and had recently taken to smoking pot, and had met the woman I would marry -- in any case, though I cannot speculate about the causes, I started feeling less and less "sure of myself." One day at bowling-league an older colleague suggested I look into Kundalini Yoga after I talked to him about meditation and Eastern religion for a couple hours. He burned me a CD and I started doing the Yoga. I should note that after one full-session of the yoga, I had a dream depicting a narrow, low-raised walkway that wove itself between two giant anacondas -- I recognized immediately that although they might eat me (in the dream), they would not kill me. Two weeks later, I finished a chapter of my dissertation related to Race, identity, and Justice (on Harriet Jacobs' autobiographical narrative). The night I finished that, I went over to a friend's house and ate incredible amounts of sugar and carbs (perhaps inducing a pre-diabetic hallucination?), smoked a lot of pot, and quite literally lost my mind -- this part is tough to describe. I felt as though I had taken on all identities available to me: "I'm black. I'm white. I'm gay. I'm straight. I'm American. I'm un-American. I'm a murderer. I'm a pacifist., etc...." -- the whole time fighting myself to keep from proclaiming these things to my friends. No matter what I tried that night, my brain would not stop going -- 100 mph. Finally I turned ghost white and shut up, and worried that I had accidentally killed my brother by breaking some metaphysical law of being.

The next week is a blur -- paranoid thoughts, drawings of strange things like eclipses, fragments of poetry that seem, in retrospect, lunatic-ramblings, photoshopped self-portraits of photographs that misshaped my head into the shape of a questionmark, very little food, no pot, and so on. Then the three sleepless nights, accompanied by three "foodless" days (an unwillful fast, driven by a complete lack of appetite unlike anything I've experienced before). Then a night at the bowling alley with friends (who I believed at the time to be avatars of some of my dead relatives), a moment of public insanity, an unforgettable glance at the stars behind the lights in the parking lot while waiting for my fiancee to come get me... Not sleeping that night, then "waking" in the morning to find that the words "I" and "You" were unsettlingly unfamiliar, utterly confusing, and unintelligible... then discovering that the fact that I couldn't understand "I" and "You" freaked my fiancee out, then wanting her not to be freaked out, because it was freaking me out, then begging my fiancee to use the pronoun "We" so that I could understand what she wanted. Then driving home (as scheduled in advance) to Michigan the next morning, dinner with my family (who I believed were spirits playfully switching bodies throughout the dinner to see if I could recognize them in different forms), a confession to the family that I had been smoking pot, a few other confessions, then finally the greatest night of sleep in my life. Waking to find myself hazy, though completely without physical stress... my limbs loose, my conscience clean as a baby's, my future seeming bright -- and with a whole lot of explaining to do.
So... which is more comfortable for readers? Which will elicit the "vibrating iron-string" response? Which sounds most authentic, most believable? Does it matter if you know the author? If you were present for part(s) of the author's story? Is it possible to be in Pip's presence as he drowns, alone, his "ringed horizon" expanding around him?

I'm still going to do all of my promised follow-ups, but I'm adding a new one to the list: objections to claims of mysticism... because I don't want to leave my readers with the impression that I unhesitatingly believe these psychotic episodes in the lives of others to be trustworthy sources of tr-th.

Sweet Playlist, Dude

Before I get to my four follow-ups to yesterday's post on the usefulness of mystical/psychotic-experience, I thought I'd drop an earnest crumb along the tr-th-trail. For a long time, I haven't been able to admit that these are some of my favorite songs, but they really really are (links provided):
1. Carry on my Wayward Son, Kansas
2. Blinded by the Light (long version), Manfred Mann
3. Wheel in the Sky, Journey
4. Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This), The Eurythmics
5. Lady, Styx
6. Sweet Child O' Mine, Guns N' Roses
7. Fat Bottomed Girls, Queen
8. Lonesome Loser, Little River Band
9. Peace of Mind, Boston
10. Nothin' But a Good Time, Poison
It feels good to unbottle this secret -- usually I just pretend I'm not that into music. But I can think of few things that allow me to see the Dharma like the second half of Manfred Mann's "Blinded by the Light": I mean consider this is a lyric: "Mama always told me not to look into the eyes of the SUuuuuuuuuun... but Mamaaaaa... that's where the fun issssssss!" Check it out:



That's so true. What Jesus probably-didn't say is so true (Gospel of Thomas, #70):
If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.

12.02.2008

"Those who are outside get everything in parables..."

This post is an attempt to fulfill the promise of an earlier post, which was prompted by comments in a still-earlier post. [Talk about limiting your prospective audience!]

In my experience, which may turn out to be important, there are two types of people: 1) people who don't believe (GROUP 1) in the interconnectedness of all thoughts and things, and 2) people who...

...well, there's where it gets interesting. You'd expect the second possibility to be, simply, "people who do believe in the interconnectedness of all thoughts and things." But I think that's not precisely true. Instead, the second group should be described as the group of "people who have experienced (GROUP 2) the interconnectedness of all thoughts and things." [NOTE: most self-described religious people actually belong in GROUP 1.2, a variation on GROUP 1, because although they say they believe in interconnectedness, they have no experience of interconnectedness.]

Now this subtle distinction -- the distinction between belief and experience -- leads to some difficult problems of communication. Definitions and terms that GROUP 2 use are very problematic to GROUP 1. So... two groups, both faced with the following testimony (Benjamin Blood, qtd. in William James' Varieties):

"Into this pervading genius," writes one of them, "we pass, forgetting and forgotten, and thenceforth each is all, in God. There is no higher, no deeper, no other, than the life in which we are founded. 'The One remains, the many change and pass;' and each and every one of us is the One that remains.... This is the ultimatum.... As sure as being--whence is all our care--so sure is content, beyond duplexity, antithesis, or trouble, where I have triumphed in a solitude that God is not above."
As William James says of the excerpt, "This has the genuine religious mystic ring!" Faced with such a description, we turn to the reactions of the two groups I described above: GROUP 2 responds, "Yes!--it is true. I have experienced that!" And although GROUP 2 might go on to contest some of the language, they will recognize the experience as essentially identical to their own. On the other hand, GROUP 1 rejects the testimony altogether: "Well you may have imagined that, but I was here the whole time, and separation has always been." They may rationalize the description of the experience away, saying things like, "Wouldn't I have felt it if all was One?" -- or more likely, they will focus on the language: "I don't believe in God," or "What do you mean by God (or above, or duplexity, or trouble, etc.)?"

Furthermore, because, as Emily Dickinson suggests in "Much Madness is Divinest Sense,"

'Tis the Majority
In this, as all, prevail
Assent - and you are sane -
Demur - you're straightway dangerous -
And handled with a Chain -
...because even GROUP 1 will admit that what Dickinson says is so obviously true (that definitions of madness are slippery), the language of the experience, rather than the experience itself, becomes the point of contest.

In his 2008 essay "Mysticism and madness: Different aspects of the same human experience?," Charles P. Heriot Maitland suggests that "mystical and psychotic experiences involve not one, but two moments: the core experience, and then the inference" (315). In other words, the experience itself precedes language and culture, but it must be framed, or interpreted, in language and culture. The consequence is that GROUP 2, upon experiencing the "altered state of consciousness" must either keep the experience a secret (which seems unlikely, given the overwhelming inversion of all previously held metaphysical assumptions) or frame it in terms of acceptable (to GROUP 1!) language and culture. One key example of the problem: atheists and Christians don't agree on much, but they certainly agree that anyone who says "I am G-d!" needs either "to be see a therapist" or to be institutionalized entirely.

Heriot Maitland goes on to argue that organized interpretive structures (like religion) may actually give the person experiencing the anamolous event something to fall back on -- indeed, it may prevent them from becoming psychotic. "To put it simply," Maitland says, "in mysticism, Oneness is good; in psychosis, Oneness is bad." Or as Joseph Campbell put it, "The schizophrenic is drowning in the same waters in which the mystic swims with delight." As Campbell would know as well as anyone, the experience of Oneness transcends culture and language, and is not (even) bound to religious practice.

My own metaphor would sound like this: the language describing the mystical experience is like the brand name of a down-jacket owned by the hermit living alone in the Canadian wilderness. It is the down that's important to him, not the status associated with the brand. And if one after another came to interview him asking him to discuss the comfort he derives from the high status associated with the brand-name of his jacket, he would be... either amused or frustrated.

The mystical experience is not a concept, and therefore it cannot be understood. It is precisely like a sneeze or an orgasm. If an ascetic and truly abstinent monk who had never experienced orgasm came to you asking what you mean by "orgasm," what could you say? How do you explain harmony to someone born deaf? How do explain the color red to a person who has never seen it?

Because they are "minorities," blind people do not suppose that all testimonies of "redness" indicate "madness." Deaf people do not ignore the testimony of "musical-ness," and non-orgasmic people do not go around ignoring all testimonies of "orgasm-ness." In fact, if you remember that awesome scene in the movie Mask, some blind people are even quite curious about the color red, however unable those around them have been to explain it.

But GROUP 1 generally remain uncurious about mystical experiences -- preferring instead to either assume psychosis in GROUP 2 or to ignore the testimony of the mystics altogether. I imagine it is because they are in a majority.

In Heriot-Maitland's article, he suggests: "The point is that schizotypal personality is actually useful, and to enjoy its benefts, we unfortunately must suffer its most extreme consequences from time to time." And he points to a chart borrowed from P.A. Garety that places "Bio-psycho-social vulnerability" at the starting point for the positive symptoms of psychosis. Vulnerability precedes the psychotic/mystical experience. Vulnerability*.

I won't say I'm a card-carrying member of GROUP 2 -- indeed, what purpose could that serve? I will say that my best guess is that everyone starts in GROUP 1, and only by the process of conversion (or transformation, or psychological reconstitution, etc.) does one enter GROUP 2. And of course: entering GROUP 2 may not necessarily be a good thing... one risks psychosis entering GROUP 2, especially if they are without the safety-net of pre-structured interpretive systems like religion in the aftermath of the conversion.

The point, for me, is this: conversion is the thing. In 1823, Sir Francis Palgrave wrote an article declaring,
In considering the actions of the mind, it should never be forgotten, that its affections pass into each other like the tints of the rainbow: though we can easily distinguish them when they have assumed a decided colour, yet we can never determine where each hue begins…. Madness is almost undefinable. Right reason and insanity are merely the extreme terms of a series of mental action, which need not be very long.
Herman Melville, scribbling in the margin of his volume of Shakespeare, dropped the "almost" and wrote: "Madness is undefinable." I think that's true, and in my experience, it's been worth the risk.

In this Ted Talk, Wade Davis talks about an indigenous people who live somewhere near (in?) Columbia... he says,

Their training for the priesthood is rather extraordinary. Young acolytes are taken away from their families at the ages of 3 and 4, sequestered in a shadowy world of darkness in stone huts at the base of glaciers for 18 years... for this entire time they are "enculturated" into the values of their society... and at the end of this amazing initiation, one day they're suddenly taken out, and for the first time in their lives at the age of 18, they see a sunrise. And in that crystal moment of awareness of the first light, as the sun begins to bathe the slopes of this stunningly beautiful landscape, suddenly everything they have learned in the abstract is affirmed in stunning glory. And the priest steps back and says, "You see -- it's really as I've told you. It is that beautiful."
That must really be something.

* Look for my follow up post, "How to become vulnerable."

Drop it like it's Siberian

Today the New York Times published (on its website, at least) the annual list of 100 notable books. I was really happy to see that Victor Pelevin's new novel, The Sacred Book of the Werewolf, made the list, and to read the accompanying very positive review, which takes a retrospective look at some of his earlier work. I've been reading this guy since '02, and although I suppose it's true that you need to have a little interest in Russia to "get" Pelevin -- you should have at least a little interest in Russia.


I don't know if The Sacred Book of the Werewolf is where to start -- my copy is in the mail. But when Russia forms a (un?)holy alliance with Venezuela and Cuba in three years and declares war on Guatemala (or something characteristically Russian like that) you're going to wish you understood a little bit about Russian history and culture.

Still working on my breakthrough post, as promised four days ago.

12.01.2008

If Snoop Dogg and I speak two different languages, then...

...then John Milton and I speak two even-more-different languages. I love this. It's about time. Now if somebody would just get around to translating Shakespeare, maybe I'd finally dare to read MacBeth.

(That's right: MacBeth is still my most-embarrasing "Never-read-it." What's yours?)

11.29.2008

Early Holiday Gift

While you're waiting for the thunder, I've decided to make one of my old blogs visible again (I deleted the original, A Voyage Thither, during a bout of temporary insanity). Here is the link that will take you to Q-Majin, which I highly recommend. There are more than 150 posts, and I'm guessing two-thirds of those are "high quality." Enjoy.

11.25.2008

"Hi. Take it easy."

I'm on the verge of a breakthrough. Easy now.

Today it occurred to me that I always feel as if nobody listens to me -- but (keep listening!) as I was feeling that, I thought, more rationally, that people do listen to me at a fairly normal clip. Then why this feeling? Why did I write a dissertation placing "listening" at the center of ethics? Why does it sometimes feel like even my mom doesn't listen to me? Anyone else ever get this feeling, even while they know "rationally" that it isn't the case that no one listens?

The post I'm aiming at is going to deal with the comments in the last post, but it's going to take me a few days -- if you (Fenhopper, Monica, etc.) have anything to add, now's the time. I'm sticking with the keywords I mentioned there, and a few others:

Time, narrative, sequence, order, Conversion, abstraction, "lived experience," transformation, mysticism, testament(s), perspective, One/Many, solution to oldest philosophical problem known to humankind, dawning of age of Aquarius, most important idea in American history, turkey.

11.24.2008

Concerning [...]

"The [...] from the dead. [...] to be, but now [...] perfect. [...] flesh, but this [...] is true flesh. [...] is not true, but [...] only an image of the true."

--from The Gospel of Philip

11.22.2008

Buddha "Fully Released" (again)

Since my XBox 360 joined forces with Netflix, I've been busy. I never regretted buying and XBox 360 instead of a Wii, but now I just feel sorry for Wii-people. I can watch as many movies as I want, basically for free.

Yesterday I watched a documentary about something you might remember: the 2001 destruction of the giant stone Buddhas in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. The statues were pre-Islamic, 1500 years old, and the Taliban didn't like them... the film is about the history of the statues and the region, etc.

I was telling my wife about the movie this morning and I got to describing how old and revered the statues were, and how the Taliban purposely tore them down -- my wife said, "Buddha would have loved that." She interrupted me just as I was about to say something like, "Isn't it a shame?" And I'm glad she did -- she's so right. Buddha would have loved the destruction of his image, just as he did the first time around so many moons earlier, when he "died." Here's a link to the movie. Here's a link to Buddha's "Fire Sermon." And here's a picture of the larger of the statues being blown to bits on March 21, 2001:


There's a cool video about all of this on YouTube, unrelated to the movie:

11.21.2008

Monism and Dualism (part deux)

The other day I argued that metaphysical discourse is often essentially the same thing as political discourse. Unfortunately, "etherealists" tend to believe they are apolitical while they smoke pipes and discuss the nature of G-d or the definition of the Soul, and materialists tend to believe they are successfully avoiding metaphysics by speaking about political policies and candidates in strictly practical terms. Although they disagree about where to place emphasis, both groups accept the essential-dual nature of reality (material vs. ethereal); neither group genuinely understands the "Monist" position, and consequently, both groups can be characterized as Dualists. I have mentioned before my recent favorite book of literary criticism, E Pluribus Unum, by W.C. Harris (2005). In the chapter on Poe, Harris argues that Poe's apparently super-ethereal cosmology is in fact a dialogue that bears heavily on political conversation. He writes,
Given the entrenched nature of certain perceptions of Poe [Harris alludes here to the consensus view that Poe was purely an aesthetician, unconcerned with practical affairs] and his work, specific objections should be addressed at the outset. One is that if Poe means to address problems of social organization, cosmology is an oblique way to do so... [but] cosmology is always about the construction, revision, and legitimation of social order. (46)
Unfortunately for Monists, Dualists make up an overwhelming percentage of the citizenry. Poe is dumped in the pre-established and easily-ignorable "etherealist heap," and thinkers like Marx are thought to be entirely free of theological concerns (as if re-establishing the principles of Justice could take place without a corresponding redefinition of G-d).

What I want to emphasize is the overwhelmingness of the Dualist position. The Dualist camp includes both hardline Democrats and hardline Republicans, devout Evangelicals and committed atheists. Against such an established orthodoxy, thinking in the manner of a Monist -- and ultimately speaking as a Monist -- is not only difficult, it is dangerous. It is important to point out here that most nominally religious people are not Monists. They go to church on Sunday, and work the rest of the week in the real world; or they responsibly differentiate between a literalist interpretation and a "reform" or contemporary interpretation. John Wesley made this point very clearly:
And so say all the world, the men who know not God, of all that are of Paul's religion: of every one who is so a follower of him as he was of Christ. It is true, there is a sort of religion, nay, and it is called Christianity too, which may be practised without any such Imputation, which is generally allowed to be consistent with common sense, --that is, a religion of form, a round of outward duties, performed in a decent, regular manner. You may add orthodoxy thereto, a system of right opinions, yea, and some quantity of heathen morality; and yet not many will pronounce, that "much religion hath made you mad." But if you aim at the religion of the heart, if you talk of "righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost," then it will not be long before your sentence is passed, "Thou art beside thyself."
We know how it ended for Jesus. Same story for 8th century Persian mystic, Al-Hallaj, who was crucified for eliminating the conceptual differences between himself and G-d. As William James points out in his chapter on "Mysticism" in Varieties of Religious Experience, the mystical/Monistic way of thinking surfaces occasionally in all cultures, and leads inevitably to a disintegration of the differentiating consciousness ("The mind is a cleaver," if you remember Thoreau's way of putting it). Look at what happened to Paul when he said too much in front of Festus:
I have had God's help to this very day, and so I stand here and testify to small and great alike... At this point Festus interrupted Paul's defense. "You are out of your mind, Paul!" he shouted. "Your great learning is driving you insane." "I am not insane, most excellent Festus," Paul replied. "What I am saying is true and reasonable." (Acts 26)
Here a related point arises: there seems to be some connection between the Monistic way of thinking and what Festus calls "great learning." Consider Socrates. Consider Lao Tzu. Consider Plotinus. Consider Meister Eckart and Julian of Norwich. Consider Emmanuel Swedenborg and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Each monistic thinker is the product of considerably great learning... gaining this vision of the One, a vision that William James declared to be the single connecting bond between all mystical experience, seems to be the product of intense study. Here's how Socrates puts it:
And so, Glaucon, I said, we have at last arrived at the hymn of dialectic. This is that strain which is of the intellect only, but which the faculty of sight will nevertheless be found to imitate; for sight, as you may remember, was imagined by us after a while to behold the real animals and stars, and last of all the sun himself. And so with dialectic; when a person starts on the discovery of the absolute by the light of reason only, and without any assistance of sense, and perseveres until by pure intelligence he arrives at the perception of the absolute good, he at last finds himself at the end of the intellectual world... (Bk. 7 emphasis added)
And "Oh, by the way," Socrates should have added, "his contemporaries will think him mad, and seek to put him in a psyche-ward if he insists on trying to communicate his vision of the absolute good. If he's very unlucky, they'll make him drink hemlock."

I don't have much to add, other than to say: "I'm sure glad I'm not a Monist! That would be a tough life..." and maybe, additionally: "We should be more compassionate, perhaps we should even listen better, to the people we describe as insane." Maybe I have one more little saying to add: "If you've never been accused, seriously, of talking crazy -- if you've never disconcerted people by your speech -- chances are you haven't been speaking the Monistic vision."

Back to dualism tomorrow: I've been meaning to get to a discussion of the defintions of death (within this context of Monism and Dualism), but this post is already bloated.



Somewhere in America, A.D. 2008

My favorite radio show (Brotha Fred's AM Mayhem on 96.1 in Charlotte) is making it big. The portly fellow in this video is part of the cast:

11.18.2008

Win One (er... Many) for the Dualists


To paraphrase from memory (maybe to quote!) Henry Thoreau, the mind is a cleaver.  But the question seems to be unanswerable whether cleaving is worthy of esteem or pity.  Read Today's story about a 2,800-year old monument implying a separation between the body and the soul -- I like that the article contrasts the ancient "mountainous" king's view of the soul with his contemporaries, the ancient Israelites, who did not agree to such a separation.

In one view, One god, no separation.  In another view, presumably, Many gods, sharp separation.  I guess I like knowing that these two apparently unresovable intellectual traditions have shared a spirited and lasting contest that spans millenia.

The most important "eureka" moment that I've had in this intellectual game came in graduate school (right around the time I was reading Poe's Eureka, in fact).  Somewhere along the way, I recognized that these theological debates are never separate from arguments concerning the shape of civilization "in the world."  Our metaphysical questions coincide with our physical questions -- to ask whether there is "division" in the universe, as the Cartesians most famously taught, is to ask whether France is divided from England, or whether Europe is divided from the rest of the world.  To defend the American Union at the cost of many lives is to argue for One True G-d, without resorting to words.

But a funny thing happens if you buy this vision: to participate unselfconsciously in either "pure" metaphysical discourse or "pure" political discourse becomes incredibly difficult.  This either/both/and-consciousness itself constitutes the synthesis in this apparently everlasting dialectic: the mind that realizes the dynamic that involves both metaphysical speculation and political argument takes a "higher" seat.

I'm convinced that most people would say, and actually do believe, that they understand this strange either/both/and dynamic... but I'm not sure they do.

-----------

By the time I was three, around the time memory started working, I was already a long-time Detroit Tigers fan.  My devotion to the team increased every year, regardless of their (usually low) position in the league standings.  I was pleased when a "good break" went the Tigers' way, and gratified when an umpire's close call went "our" way.  And I spoke in the first person, including myself with the Tigers as if "we" could do it this year... or if not this year, next.

I don't remember precisely when the crack in my devotion happened -- but I do understand how it happened.  One day, around age 25, I was watching the Tigers play in the evening after reading a book about ethical responsibility and accountability to the Other (or something like that).  There must have been a close call on the infield; I would have watched the instant replay carefully -- and for some reason that had nothing to do with my personal will, I would have been able to see that the close play really shouldn't have been called in the Tigers' favor.  The other team was playing hard, and the umpires were watching closely -- the Tigers were called "out," may have lost the game.

In the single moment where I realized (again: through no act of the will) that some principle(s) of rules and "reality" were more important than team loyalty, the crack appeared... I started watching games as a "detached" observer.  I remember watching the World Series in 2006, and politely cheering for the Tigers, but I could no longer feel as if I and that team were inseparable.  I had "achieved" the "higher" seat.

So when I say that most people think that they understand this strange either/or/both dynamic about the body and the soul, and I say that I believe that most of them are mistaken -- I think about "affiliation."  I think about the way that most sports fans never do entirely undo an early loyalty.  And I translate: in the great contest between Dualism and Monism, some of us are Dualism fans by the time we are three; some are Monists by the age of three... and it is only in the complete detachment--in the realization that the umpires are just, and that the Dualists will win the games they should win, and the Monists will win when they should--it's only then that the "higher" seat is occupied.

One cautionary note: watching your team play in the world series after detachment is completely different, and perhaps less "fun," than watching it when you feel a personal connection to your team.  So although I'm calling it a "higher" seat, I'm not sure I mean to attach value to it in the same way... before you detach from the Democratic party, Mxrk, or from the Boston Red Sox, Insignificant Wrangler, or from U of M, Fenhopper, keep in mind: there's nothing "wrong" with staying in the game.

To be continued...

11.17.2008

Thanks, Progress...

Of course someone did...

I know I didn't exactly "find" this, but... you're welcome.

Thanks boingboing.

(By the way: a million bonus points to anyone who recognizes the mismatched music, which came from an underappreciated NES game in the role-playing genre.)

11.14.2008

" 'G-d,' obviously..."



I really love the movie Waking Life (Richard Linklater, 2001), and this is one of my favorite scenes. I'm going to post clips occasionally, because I recently discovered that the entire movie is available for free on some of the internets. I may comment, sometimes -- but not this time.

The thing about Unity, see...

I was in the fancy mall in Charlotte's South Park neighborhood this afternoon, wandering around while my wife shopped for stuff... I stumbled into the Urban Outfitters store, looking a little out of place (Khakis and a long-sleeved golf shirt, tucked in.  Penny loafers, with pennies).  I go in there once in a while because I love how soft their t-shirts are.

The first t-shirt to catch my eye today was this one:

Okay -- I get it.  Retro... borderline authentic looking.  Pretty cool.  At least, before the election.  Now I know what some of you will tell me: Urban Outfitters has never represented authentic counter-culture... it's a kind of bourgeois/faux-rebel shop.  Thirty dollars for a gray t-shirt?  Okay: Fair enough.

But it does really seem that we're entering in on a historically shaky moment here: Obama certainly began his career as a populist, and he got elected President while keeping it more real than any politician I've ever seen (with the possible exception of Jesse Ventura).  But as Mxrk's Dad's letter reminded me the other day, Obama is "the man" now.  He might be a better version of "the man," but he is power.

So I hope there are young people somewhere who understand how much of a sell-out it is to wear the President's picture on your t-shirt.  I suspect they do: a few of my 18-year olds told me that Obama seemed to them like just another stiff suit (which could've been a cover for racism, but could've also been a sign that wearing a track suit on Sundays doesn't count as keeping it real -- I suspect the latter, since the same students who said this of Obama weren't even close to supporting McCain.).

Don't get me all wrong here: I spent a whole dissertation of my life clamoring for Unity, begging for people to come together in a spirit of New Americanness, etc.  I'm super glad Obama defeated that old, divisive, dying fellow.  But let's stay on our toes.  Mainstream/partisan Democrats should bask in the glow just as the Republican base did in 2000 and 2004... but I get nervous when I hear academics defending institutional power.

It's possible that we're sailing into a golden sunset here -- but just in case our boat gets head-butted and sunk by a scary white whale, I'd like to be one of the few who cling to the floating casket of a drown cannibal.  (I'm not sure if that's a metaphorial allusion or not...)

To-Do List

Thought some of you might like to see what an assistant professor does:

-Interview students for college of education this afternoon.

-Prepare defense of (recently composed) New Course Proposal for Monday's department meeting.

-Faculty Progress reports due Nov. 26 (write-up description of professional activities, etc.).

-As chair of committee on student evals., find two students willing to act as representatives to the student body.  Contact the people who designed our evaluation forms.  Organize meeting for early January.  Find out what competitor institutions do.

-Complete "Faculty-in-Residence" application form and essay.

-Doctor's appointment.

-Generate syllabus for ENG 102 (intro. writing, part II).

-Generate syllabus for ENG 204 (American Lit. 1865-present).

-Write proposal for upcoming Poe conference (due Dec. 31).

-Honors committee meeting?

-Write final exams for ENG 101 and ENG 203 (next week!).

-Prepare lesson plan on H.D. Thoreau for Monday.

-Prepare lesson plan on MLA format... and grammar lesson, for Monday.

-Grade ~120 "in-class writings" this weekend.

-Tuck your shirt in; comb your hair; smile.

-Lunch with full-faculty on Wednesdays.

-Lunch with liberal arts faculty on Thursdays.

Forgive me, Walt, for I have sinned...

11.12.2008

Somebody's watchin' meeeeee...

As a follow up on Monday's post about madness and mysticism, here's an article about how paranoia is on the rise. A while back, I did a story about Truman Show Syndrome. This is mostly for you, Fenhopper. My favorite line in today's article is, "madness is human."

Daily Dose of Optimism

I have to say, this article made me feel proud to be a "New American" (a term I'm coining for people who voted for Obama, for people who "get it.").  There are undoubtedly remaining racial tensions in America -- few would argue that ponit.  But if America has, indeed, as this article suggests, reached the tipping point where race is being handled more deftly here than it is in Europe... well that's big news.  Maybe in this generation we won't lose so many James Baldwins.  Hell, maybe we'll pick up a few exiled minorities from Spain and France who recognize progress when they see it.  That'd be nice.

11.10.2008

Maybe the words of the prophets really ARE written on the subway walls & tenement halls!

Admittedly, I'm feeling a bit manic tonight -- prepare yourself.

This afternoon I went to a lecture on a 1967 French novel by Michel Tournier called Friday. It's a retelling of Defoe's Robinson Crusoe that tells of a more contemporary Crusoe's falling away from his cultural traditions and learning to listen and learn from Friday. The speaker, a colleague at my university, was arguing that Tournier's book is a study of the ways in which the colonial Self and Other can be reconciled. The speaker delivering the paper suggested that the Self must cease seeing the Other as a threat, and begin to see the Other as a field of possibility (I'm paraphrasing very loosely). When he was finished speaking, another of my colleagues said, "But don't we have to have some stability?--some relatively permanent or foundational part of the Self--don't we need a vantage point, if only to hold ourselves accountable through time?"

The problem, it seemed to me, was that these gentlemen were insisting on keeping the conversation within the framework of philosophy (or "theory"). In fact, of course, the character of Crusoe was not convinced to listen to Friday by any abstract argument, but rather, by a sequence of events (haphazard or not is, for now, beside the point). In other words, what was needed was a narratological analysis as much as, or more than, a philosophical analysis. If some major mental breakthrough is needed to begin to see the Other, or to see the now-archetypal "Invisible Man," maybe philosophy isn't the path -- maybe a conversion narrative is required. In that way, the self will be consistent across time, but it may be "re-made," or renewed, or (uh-oh) reborn.

When I am thinking best, I am thinking in reversals: if I want to perceive the Other as less of a threat, for example, I should begin by re-evaluating my Self as an object that can be threatened. If some kind of authentic communication is going to take place between the Self and the Other (or the powerful and the marginal, or, in America, white and black), then some non-dualistic thinking is absolutely required.

So I've been thinking all afternoon about this. I am thinking about William James declaring that the fundamental common ground between reports of mystical experiences in all cultures and all religions is a perception of "Oneness": it is waking up after a tormented, sleepless night next to a fiancee (or whatever) and looking at her, unable to distinguish between the pronouns "I" and "You," pleading with her (yourself?) to say "We." It is understanding experiencing the fact that, not figuratively, but literally, the Self and the Other are not divided.

Of course, like James, as I've said before -- I don't know anything about that. But I am convinced that if someone were to step forward these days and say that they were in the throes of such an experience (undoubtedly they would be struggling with the language needed to describe it) we calmer souls would hustle them off to a "psyche-ward" (read about Jones Very!--who, incidentally, MXRK, was raised by an atheist mother and absent father...). Our insane are our prophets, our mad are our saints, our crazy are our mystics. Looks like I'm not alone in saying this (finally!). A brand new article in the journal Mental Health, Religion & Culture (April 2008; vol. 11, issue 3) is exploring the possibility. Here's the abstract, written by author, Charles P. Heriot-Maitland:

Associations between mysticism and madness have been made since earliest recorded history, and the striking resemblance between self-reports of both mystical and psychotic experience suggests that similar psychological processes may be involved in their occurrence. By exploring the similarities, and proposing a common element to mystical and psychotic experience (referred to here as the experience of "oneness"), this paper aims to place mysticism and madness onto the same experiential continuum. However, in contrast to much of the previous literature, the intention is not to pathologize mystical experience, but rather to normalize psychotic experience. The paper argues not only that the experience of oneness is entirely genuine and available to all humans, but also that it has an important psychological (and evolutionary) function. Using cognitive terminology, it then attempts to explain the processes determining whether an individual enjoys a fulfilling mystical experience, or suffers a debilitating psychotic breakdown (i.e., how "oneness" is experienced). Finally, this paper turns to look at some of the important implications such an approach might have for clinical practice and for the mental health of people in general.

If that sounds boring to you, Chappelle's saying the same damn thing:



Update: Another recent article in the same journal makes a similar case. One of you might be interested--here's the abstract:

In the article, I explore the use of spiritual strategies in the treatment of manic depression in religiously oriented psychiatric inpatients. Manic depression, a disorder primarily of mood, is characterized by bouts of mania alternating with depression. Religious themes and mystical experiences pervade the language of manic depressive illness, e.g., sensing one is God, being given a divine mission, receiving divine messages, having ecstatic experiences, and so on. Debate exists concerning the effectiveness of spiritual interventions in manic patients. I suggest that a trained religious leader may be able to work therapeutically with such patients, provided that two goals are kept in mind: emphasizing beliefs that facilitate positive coping and challenging irrational religious beliefs (i.e., beliefs that lead to negative coping). When examined psychoanalytically, patients' religious symbols and beliefs reveal deeply held beliefs about themselves. In particular, splitting and idealization and devaluation can be seen in their religious belief system. The role of culture in promoting maladaptive belief systems must not be overlooked. In employing spiritual interventions in patients diagnosed with manic depression, potential dangers are imposing one's values on patients and overstating the importance of spirituality.*

*Full citation: Raab, KA. "Manic depression and religious experience: the use of religion in therapy." Mental Health, Religion & Culture 10.5 (Sept. 2007). Pgs. 473-87.

11.07.2008

Afraid of Dyin' ?


I said in the comments section under my post about AM Mayhem the other day, "I can't say what I think about race."  Let me elaborate.

You've heard my voice before.  I'm the happy-go-lucky white guy who says, too easily, "We're all one species -- we're all part of one big family."  At least I was, before graduate school.  Then I spent seven years learning (explicitly) to value diverse racial perspectives, learning (implicitly) that race determines perspective.  I left graduate school better able to listen to the stories of racial injustice from American, and world, history.  But I left much more pessimistic than I entered.

By the time I left graduate school, my friends (both white, black, and "other") had convinced me that white people could never really understand the black experience in America.  This isn't just rhetoric to me: it's what I came to believe.  But my friends left it there... 

I went home and thought about it.  What would that mean for America?  In particular, what would it mean from the perspective of African Americans?  I thought to myself, "Well, if I were African American, and I was convinced that white Americans could not understand what it's like to be black, I suppose I wouldn't bother with them much.  They're a lost cause."  After all, I reasoned, if I ever concluded that anyone could never understand my identity, could never understand me, under any circumstances -- I wouldn't waste my time.  Ultimately, if I were African American, I think I would conclude that white Americans just don't "get it," and that conclusion would inevitably lead to a lack of trust.  If I were black, I wouldn't trust white.

So that's how I thought through it as a white person -- of course, it doesn't end there: just as I'm drifting off to sleep with that crystalline thought in my head, I remember: but white people can never understand what it's like to be black.  Some clearly I don't.  So maybe I'm wrong about If I were black, I wouldn't trust white.

A paranoia develops -- a paranoia that ("doubtedly") runs both ways.

I talk to my two or three black friends, and begin to wonder whether they mistrust me.  I wonder whether I (subconsciously) mistrust them.  I try very hard to listen, to understand, to concede the "final word," and so on -- I get a Ph.D. in American Literature, which, obviously, requires a relatively deep knowledge of the history of race in America -- but nothing seems to surmount my starting premise: white people can never understand the black experience in America.  I conclude, pessimistically: Unity is impossible.  If I believe what my few black friends tell me about the black experience in America (and I must, if I am trying to be "ethical"), then I must conclude, as they have, that authentic understanding is not possible.

Then I hear something as simple as this, on another radio talk program in Charlotte (though, this one might be syndicated): "Listen, people: we're going to have to leave some people behind.  Some people are not getting this.  To my black families, Latino families: ask yourselves this: 'Do you have more in common with the white people in America who voted for Obama, or the African Americans and Latinos who voted for McCain? ' "

The speaker is Michael Baisden, who has been playing Sam Cooke's "A Change Gonna Come" more frequently than usual lately.  He is an adamant Obama supporter -- so adamant that he is willing to leave, en masse, the McCain team in the dust of history.

Yesterday I asked Fenhopper a question that always intrigues me: how do we recognize the prophets?  How would I have recognized "who John the Baptist was" if I had been alive then?  By what indication would I have recognized Jesus as Gd?  Would I have been able to comprehend Whitman's poetry when it was first printed?

I know what my academic friends will say about Michael Baisden.  I know the objections to unity.  I understand what is keeping us divided, and why (according to some) we aren't ready for a great leap forward.  But I am ever drawn to mystery, and Baisden's voice (with an increasing number of voices in the media and on the sidewalks) sounds mysterious and tempting to me.  It sounds like an invitation to a party.  We're might-just-gonna leave some people behind.

*See tomorrow's post on my "midrashic" interpretation of the Biblical use of the phrase "to die" if you're concerned about the title.

Who's down with O.P.?

An uplifting article, by Orlando Patterson, of Harvard University, appearing in the NY Times. Especially that last line --

11.06.2008

"How do you and I unify, if we're separated?"

Or: "People may be listening differently whenever they hear something"

I had a really rewarding email exchange with a local FM radio show this morning.  In Charlotte, 96.1 is the best hip-hop station, and their morning show has hooked me from the start, almost entirely because it's ridiculous and funny.  The cast, Brotha Fred (middle), David L. (right), Jacinda (smokin'), and Cubby (not pictured) are a youngish and diverse crowd.


After hearing a large chunk of a rather serious discussion about "race" this morning stemming from Obama's victory, I emailed David L. and asked him to post this segment as a podcast for download, primarily so that I can save it and use it in the future in my classroom.  Click here to listen to segment one; click here to listen to segment two. [PLEASE make sure to listen to at least the entire first segment before droppin' a comment.]

I can't think of a more important moment to have this conversation--to have it over and over and over again--than right now.  The challenge, and it is a monumental challenge, is to find a way to achieve the Unity we all claim to want by sympathizing with both David L.'s and Brotha Fred's arguments.  Best I can tell, the difficulty stems from the fact we are using historically loaded terms: my guess is that almost anyone who listens to these two clips will "choose sides," will side with either David L. or Brotha Fred.

I absolutely know (and try to accept) people who almost certainly would be drawn to Brotha Fred's argument, perhaps so strongly that they will not be able to seriously consider David L.'s perspective.  On the other hand, I know (and try to accept) people who are going to sympathize with David L. so strongly as to make it impossible to listen to Brotha Fred.  The most amazing part of all of this may be the fact that Brotha Fred believes he is agreeing with David L., while David L. remains unconvinced that there is a fundamental agreement. 

Here's an excerpt from the email I returned to David L. after he asked me about my views, especially in my role as an educator:
My views are complicated -- I'm new to the region (from Michigan originally), which complicates things further.  In the classroom, I'm convinced that the most important thing is learning to listen to each other's views even when they sting a bit.  But personally, I sometimes feel a little pessimistic: it's as if our definitions (black, white, race, etc.) block us from ever actually experiencing authentic communication... we sort strike the pose of listening, and mutter things like "mmhmm, yeah, mmhmm," but it sometimes seems to me as if we only hear the things we want to hear.  I guess I cling to the hope that there might be other categories ("American," or maybe "Christian," or whatever) that might eventually bring us to see ourselves as "One" instead of diverse -- but I understand that that's probably much easier to say as a white person than it would be for a black person.  Welcome to America, I guess, right?