5.30.2009

Predictable, Necessary Rant

I read on NPR about one of Sonia Sotomayor's more controversial statements. Sotomayor said,
Whether born from experience or inherent physiological or cultural differences, a possibility I abhor less or discount less than my colleague Judge Cedarbaum, our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging. Justice O'Connor has often been cited as saying that a wise old man and wise old woman will reach the same conclusion in deciding cases. I am not so sure Justice O'Connor is the author of that line since Professor Resnik attributes that line to Supreme Court Justice Coyle. I am also not so sure that I agree with the statement. First, as Professor Martha Minnow has noted, there can never be a universal definition of wise. Second, I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life.
That's really f*cked up. I disagree. I don't care if she gets confirmed or not -- I'm off politics. But this seems to me like 1) a bad definition of wisdom, 2) evidence that she's lacking a certain degree of wisdom, and, 3) racist.

It won't surprise any of my consistent readers that I disagree with her statement. But, man -- she really reveals the precise issue to me. If "richness of experiences" is the standard for better judging, and a Latina woman has richer experiences simply by virtue of her racial inheritence and cultural experience... well, I wish somebody would put together the "richness of experience heirarchy list." Then again, I guess going to Princeton and Yale does give one a certain "richness of experience," especially compared to going to a lowly teaching school in Michigan.

Soon we will return to epistemology, and the question will be: can you transcend your racial determiners when it comes to knowing reality? I will side with those who say "Yes, you can."

5.26.2009

Prophecy Delivered

I have seen the future, and it looks like this: windmills on skyscrapers. Picture Chicago just as it is but with a thousand windmills on the tops of its buildings.

Now, can I copyright this idea if I draw it up? And listen: don't tell me "No," and then go copyright it yourself. I know which eight people read this blog, and I'm coming after you if you try that move, Wrangler.

Incidentally, if there are not windmills on the top of ever major skyscraper in the country in thirty years because of "aesthetics" I will dedicate my life to speaking about the hypocrisy of environmentalists who claim to want to save the planet... but not if it makes our buildings look ugly.

5.25.2009

Wisdom Literature -- for Initiates only

Background: For the past couple of years, I've been drawn to a certain kind of literature that is -- for good reason -- taboo in respectable academic circles. It goes by some strange names: "esoterism," "wisdom literature," "for initiates," etc. Very undemocratic. Its the stuff that intentionally forgoes a universal audience in an effort to speak to those who have already had a certain kind of experience -- usually for the sake of reinforcing in this audience the significance of the event and encouraging a certain kind of ethical responsibility. Examples include the Gnostic gospels, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, some of Philip K. Dick's novels and essays, and like... Madame Blavatsky and stuff.

One thing appears and reappears in this literature, and it is the rhetorical assumption that the audience believes in, and has experienced already, a very particular kind of... ineffably "psychological" change. Or at least: that the audience believes in the possibility of such a transformation.


So take "enlightenment," for example. The Buddha takes for granted that his listeners either have experienced samadhi or that they believe it is possible for a human being to experience such a state.

Body: My sister-in-law wants to start a Yoga studio. And she told me something this weekend really interesting... she's studying to get certified under the tutelage of a certain yogi who has broken tradition quite a bit. "She's almost revolutionizing Yoga," my sis said.

For example, during "up-dog," this instructor likes to wiggle her shoulders in ways that are not prescribed by the ancient traditions of Yoga.

Two views:

1) Great, that sounds fun. Yoga needs an update anyway.

2) Well, that sounds fine -- but it doesn't sound like Yoga. Yoga is an ancient precise method for bringing about enlightenment and healing, and it activates the chakras in very specific ways by using techniques that have been perfected over the millenia. "Wiggle your shoulders" all you want -- that's good exercise. But it's not Yoga.
I certainly understand both arguments. My sister-in-law obviously sympathizes with the first view. I can see that. But I also wonder about the second view, the more "conservative" view.

It seems to me that anyone who believes in the possibility of enlightenment will tend toward view #2, and anyone who doesn't believe in anything called "enlightenment" will probably find view #1 exhilirating.

Synthesis & Conclusion:

All of this reminded me of our conversation last week about the purpose of the liberal arts. One bunch saying "Let's change it all -- there's no such thing as enlightenment; or if there is, this method isn't working anymore (and it hurts our shoulders anyway)." And the other person saying, "This method does work, and the part where it hurts your shoulders is part of the method. Stick to it!"

So when I asked my sister-in-law, "Yeah, but... then... what makes a given series of movements 'Yoga,' if not the accordance with prescribed Yogic tradition," and she replied, "Technically, if you're not breathing, it's not Yoga," and I thought to myself, "I'm always breathing," -- well, that was interesting. Because when I asked, "What's Yoga," I thought a lot was at stake. I'm not sure that question meant as much to her.

Incidentally (?): here's a picture of a pit-viper. I took this picture this weekend. I had seen a Carolina water snake about a month ago (pictured below), and I thought it was the same. It wasn't. The top one here is a copperhead -- not deadly, but painfully poisonous. The bottom one's harmless. Obviously, sometimes definitions are really important. But of course, I wouldn't have this picture if I knew my definitions. Hey, isn't a snake a classic figure for wisdom? Of course.

5.21.2009

Academic Meditation

Do we all more-or-less reveal what we believe to be ethical by our behavior? Or does that self-destructive-thinking-against-oneself-sin-nature in each of us, what E.A. Poe called "Perverseness" -- does that lead us to behave in ways we don't "believe in?" Can we have beliefs about morality and ethical behavior, and then fail according to our own premises? Does this all mean that actions--even the actions of academics and intellectuals--speak louder than words? And if that's true, does that imply that she who talks the most is most disappointed in her own behavior? Should "Ethics" be simply a study of how human behavior is dissatisfactory?

Take a figure like Levinas. We all like Levinas. He says stuff about how we should defer to the other, put the other first, etc. Can we do that? Do we do that? What does it look like?

I ask "What does it look like?" because I'm genuinely not sure. Maybe that comes from a lack of clarity about who the "other" is -- is it my neighbors in this apartment complex, or is it all of the impoverished people in India? Or is it every-other-person on the planet? If those questions seem too abstract to guide behavior, I think you're onto my thinking --

Most of the people who write about somebody like Emmanuel Levinas, who study him, who ascribe to some or most of his views, tend to stay focused in Levinas' direction. The read Buber. If they're daring, they might read Paul Tillich or Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. But the "other" seems to be in all directions. If I go on talking in terms like "ontology" and "social responsibility" and "G-d" and "other" aren't I putting my own preferences before those who do not employ such terminology? Is it more "ethical" to learn one vocabulary deeply and meaningfully, or to dabble in a vast and diverse array of others' vocabularies? Was T.S. Eliot "authentically" familiar enough with Hinduism to borrow the words of prayer from the Upanishads, "Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata."? Or would he have been behaving more ethically to seek expression in his own native vocabulary?

In the 1980s, literary criticism opened itself and diversified its attention, turning (in American literature, for example) to texts by writers whose identity wasn't white-heterosexual-male. Authors like Harriet Jacobs and E.D.E.N. Southworth rose in esteem while ancient deadies like Longfellow and Whittier were relegated to the margins of anthologies. Was this a self-conscious "ethical" movement? Was it just a reflection of something happening at a social level in 1980s America?

In the 1980s, as literary criticism tried to widen its attention -- as it began actively seeking the other, however problematic that act might be -- "Theory" grew into its own discipline. Oddly enough, its major dozen or so names were overwhelmingly white and male: Foucault, Derrida, Baudrillard, Lyotard, Barthes, Jameson, Adorno, Benjamin, etc. In a strange irony, these white male voices were proclaiming, effectively, "heed the word of the other; defer to the other." But those studying "Theory," at least for a while, were quite narrowly focused on those dozen or so voices. Was this an ethical peformance? An ethical moment?

What does it mean to put the other first? What does it look like out of theory, in practice? What about those authors who were "other" voices at first -- take someone like Levinas, maybe? -- who have by now (relatively long ago) become "central" voices? Are we to go on listening to these kinds of voices, or are we to go seeking the voice of other others?

Ralph Ellison's perfect description of "invisibility" in Invisible Man showed once and for all that there are those who we genuinely cannot see -- and implied that those are the others. How shall we find what we cannot see? Where can we look? What are we missing by paying attention to "centralized" voices like Levinas, Ellison, etc.?

5.18.2009

Prerequisites

[I'm reluctant to post anything new because my last twelves posts have been so incredible. Don't miss them -- comments still being accepted!]

***

I typed this up today while I was really really bored. It's a list I'd give any student who came to me if I was a guru. I would refuse to bother with them until they had ingested all of this. All of it:
Prerequisites

Albert Camus playing goalie for the Algerian national soccer team. Your own astrological sign. Albert Hoffman riding his bicycle. Dispensing Easy Cheese. Working for under $8.00/hr. Something about the brutal death of Rasputin. Picasso’s Guernica. The Tamil Tigers. Pythagoras’ theorem. How to figure batting average. That black-and-white of the naked Vietnamese girl, napalm in the near distance. The song, “Row, row, row your boat.” A little bit of Spanish. The verses of the Diamond Sutra. The ability to swim in open water. Recognizing Toucan Sam and Tony the Tiger. One fact about the Ganges river. The outlines of Jean Valjean’s story. Pol Pot. How to unhook a bra with one hand. The story about Hitler’s rejection from art school. “Laying out.” The story about the television debate between JFK and Nixon. All the words to Don McLean’s “American Pie.” The opening sentence of Moby-Dick. The difference between an equinox and a solstice. The train-station metaphor for the theory of relativity. Being in a wedding. The square root of 225 without showing your work. Up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, start. Having a favorite episode of Seinfeld. The first five American presidents and the last five. The board game, “Life.” The memory of chatrooms. A good guess about how many Jews were killed in the holocaust. A working theory concerning the Great Depression. Watching The Matrix. The phrase “illegal downloading.” Helping friends move. Wearing Birkenstocks or flip-flops. Going to a professional sporting event. Trimming your pubes at least once. Not loving M. Night Shyamalan’s endings. Breaking a bone or needing stitches. The year twenty-twelve. Who Meadowlark Lemon played for. Knowing what Shostakovich was famous for. Where Luther posted his theses. About the green M&Ms. And Yellow No. 5. The memory of putting the chain back on your bike. Trying Thai food for the first time. What good blood pressure numbers look like. The ability to name the eight or nine planets in order starting closest the sun. The ability to identify a modernist skyscraper. A trip to another country. Using a graphing calculator. Taking a train. Having read at least one of Shakespeare’s plays. Smoking a joint. Rembrandt in the MET. Internet porn (hard & soft). Indiana Jones. The memory of French-rolling your jeans. Trying to pray or meditate. Crying until your head throbs when you’re not alone and older than 18. Cutting the grass. Eating cold Pop-Tarts. “Up All Night” with Rhonda Shear. The names of The Beatles. Bowling better than 150. Taking stuff to Goodwill. Basic understanding of the theory of supply and demand. The names of at least two different antidepressant drugs. John 3:16. Remember reading “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Hungry Hippos. Admitting you were wrong about an idea. At least glancing at the Communist Manifesto, if not reading it. Something about: Ty Cobb, Leopold & Loeb, Kevin Arnold, and Easy E. The names of three geographical features (e.g., peninsula). The name of any character on Friends other than the original six. Standing in line at the DMV. An outdoor concert. Getting a “C” in a class. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. The words to one of James Taylor’s songs. The questionable use of a condom, during sex or otherwise. Mozzarella sticks. Spraining an ankle. The name of the Japanese currency. The name of one of Hulk Hogan’s WWF rivals. Owning Velcro shoes. A good guess about how long ago the earliest cave paintings ever discovered were painted. A distinct 9/11 memory. Seeing an open casket. Jimi Hendrix’s National Anthem. The photograph known as “Earthrise.” The Branch Davidians. Volunteering because you have to, at least once. Dissecting an animal. Skimming text to find your own name. Painting your face. Sinking a three-pointer. A mug of good green tea.

Think of this as preparation for my next post, which is going to be about the necessity of things like authority and expertise (and maybe even "discipline") and the psychological and social benefits of authentic self-cultivation. A post that I will title, "The Student-Centered Civilization and the Problem of Real Selfishness," or something like that.

Respondez!

Monica just posted a link to a really engaging talk she gave at UCLA (introduced by Eric Sundquist!--awesome).  The talk is clear and focused, and not derivative, but original.  It's important to listen to the entire thing, but I found myself so riveted by an early passage that I went back and forth between pause & play for ten minutes transcribing it.  Monica is speaking about the problems of representing trauma (the Holocaust in particular), alluding to the twin problematic facts that silence may be ethical, but also inadequate (we may forget if we do not speak)... and that representation, even the carefullest kinds of poetic expression, have an unavoidable way of "staging themselves" (my language) between us and the original traumatic event.  That is, representation may ultimately be distancing.  So the problem is, what are we to do with some collective traumatic experience like the Holocaust?  Monica will argue that the impulse toward midrashic response may be a kind of narrow "way."  Here's the part that had me glued to my speakers.  Monica said,

Literature cannot but witness the origin from which it comes, but it may or may not take cognizance of these origins. In the case of collective trauma, the midrashic impulse reveals a more ethical mode of responding to tragedies.  I suggest that the midrashic mode is more ethical because it sidesteps the potential pitfalls of representation (which always claims to know) by relying instead on extensional logic, which implicitly acknowledges the convergence of what can never be known or understood and the imperative that we have to continue to try.

In just the comparison of the midrashic mode to the literary/representational mode, Monica has already created the premise of an argument worth listening to.  I hope I'm not wrong to suggest that Monica understands midrash as being a kind of narrow and tenuous path between silence and narrative, and to identify the point about "extensional logic" as being a key part of the foundation of her argument.

But I'm most struck by the very last half-sentence of that excerpt: "...the imperative that we have to continue to try [to know... what some trauma was like, psychologically/historically]."

I don't have a counter-argument for any of this, but I am drawn to the distinctions that Monica is making.  I have some questions, the kind I would've asked if I had been the only person in Monica's audience on the day she delievered the talk:

  1. What is it that creates the imperative to keep trying?--the magnitude of a trauma?  Its uniqueness?  The "depth" of the tragedy?  What would happen if we stopped trying?
  2. It seems to me that there is a danger in turning to "extensional logic" that I think would be opposed by "revelatory writing" (or something like that).  Is there a risk that we become mired in history at the expense of the present?  Remember Emerson's first words: "Our age is retrospective.  It builds sepulchres of the fathers.  It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face."  [Emerson's "God" here may be interepreted as just "other people," and I include this excerpt as a direct challenge to your inclusion of Levinas.  I've always read Levinas' "other" as a living being, and the "Face" as existing in the present, not in the past.  What if these claims conflict?  What if the inconsistencies of history make us choose between being responsible for our living neighbors and our dead ancestors?  It seems you're making victims of the Holocaust into "neighbors" for whom we should/must be responsible.  Hmmm....  thoughts?  Or are you saying that our midrashic response may encourage midrashic response from our living neighbors?]
  3. To turn to midrash in the wake of the Holocaust has the effect of turning the Holocaust into a kind of "holy text" -- isn't that problematic?: the Holocaust as G-d's latest prophet?
  4. You say later in the talk that 20th century language and theology have been inadequate.  What would adequate look like?  Is joy any more capable of being adequately communicated?  Or even something as mundane as the ennui of the French existentialists: do Camus' essays/stories/plays do an adequate job?  Could midrash have helped Camus to express his angst better?  In other words, is the problem of representation that you have identified not limited to responding to atrocities?
Listeners at home, feel free to play along.  And it case this response hasn't made it clear: great  job, Monica!  Excellent stuff.

5.13.2009

The Importance of Proper Spelling

I can never remember how to spell cleavage. I googled it a moment ago. Clicked the wikipedia page. Some awesome stuff appeared, including these informative little tit bits:
  • When the lateral aspects of the breasts are uncovered, it is known as side cleavage, sidewinders or sideboob.
  • Exposure of the underside of the breast, such as below an extremely short crop top, is known as neathage, Australian cleavage (because of the American reference to Australia as down-under), bottom cleavage, reverse cleavage, underboob, or shitapai[6] (shita+oppai, under-breasts in Japanese).
  • For legal purpose it was noted by the United States federal courts that "anal cleft or cleavage" and "cleavage of the female breast" are so imprecise as to provide no guidance in defining them.
Fascinating.

Dualism and Western Education

Writing that essay on Rhetoric and Gorgias below made me realize what I've been so passionate about lately... I'm convinced that education in the West is suffering at every level from its continued dualistic assumptions. My dad, himself a college professor (in Physical Education, no less!) who is currently working closely with some Indian educators, told me recently that every public school in India begins with 90 minutes of physical education every day. Stretching, cricket, Yoga, etc... then shower. Then books. Our students sit in rows for four hours, walk down a short hall to eat a bunch of high fructose corn syrup, then sit on a step outside for fifteen minutes, then sit in rows for another four hours.

I've been doing Yoga for a while now. I can't believe I haven't expressed it this clearly before. Contemporary Theory, Philosophy, and Rhetoric make no claims on the body... in one of my Yoga videos the Yogi asks viewers to bend sideways, reaching one hand up toward the sky, letting the head fall sideways, looking up at the high hand, letting the low hand hang down to the knee. She says, "This movement will open your physical heart; an open heart opens the mind."

What Yoga has understood for thousands of years -- that the experience cannot come to a person who will not get out of their study, off their couch -- is something that the West has yet to embrace in its public education institutions. We believe that a person who eats unhealthy and never exercises, who never walks in the woods, never throws a ball, might be our next great philosopher. But to the Indians, such a notion is laughable and characteristically immature (how young this "West" is, after all). Wisdom is half body, half mind, and we have been treating only the mind for hundreds of years.

And this all explains -- for me, if for nobody else -- why I have been so drawn to those descriptions of poetry and literature that go so far as to make physical claims (this one from Emily):
If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?
Seriously: stop talking about all of these ideas and try one. I mean, you know, if you want.



My favorite line here is, "If you want to bring your arms down, the best I can advise you is: Don't."

Rhetoric: An Outsider's View

Part I

Whereas scholars of Rhetoric are inclined to view Literatary Study with a critical eye, I -- a Literary Study person through and through -- have been increasingly excited about saying "Yes!" to Rhetoric. Here I'd like to define what I mean by "Rhetoric," in case it isn't what contemporary Rhetoricians mean by the term, and to explain why I endorse the discipline.

One of the commonplaces about the term "Rhetoric" has been that it is used as a pejorative term opposing Truth-seeking speech and writing. In the context of Classical dialogue, Socrates is taken to be the noble-hearted Truth-seeker, and his most representative opponents have been termed "Sophists." As contemporary Rhetoricians frame this point, Sophists have long been wrongly understood in the popular imagination as scoundrely con-men who are self-evidently far less noble than someone like Socrates. Seeking to rectify historical judgment, contemporary Rhetoricans elevate figures like Gorgias--himself one of the godfathers of Sophistry--into a position of (at least) moral equivalence with Socrates, if not a position of moral superiority.

Gorgias interests me very much, and I want to cautiously argue--no, not even argue, but suggest--that contemporary Rhetoricians have misunderstood Gorgias, and have created an opposition where none existed. He's a winner, I'll suggest -- but not for the reasons you think. Here's one of the centrally important excerpts from Plato's Gorgias dialogue (Socrates is using the Physician as an example of an expert, a person of knowledge):
Soc. But if [the rhetor] is to have more power of persuasion than the physician, he will have greater power than he who knows?

Gor. Certainly.

Soc. Although he is not a physician:-is he?

Gor. No.

Soc. And he who is not a physician must, obviously, be ignorant of what the physician knows.

Gor. Clearly.

Soc. Then, when the rhetorician is more persuasive than the physician, the ignorant is more persuasive with the ignorant than he who has knowledge?-is not that the inference?

Gor. In the case supposed:-Yes.

Soc. And the same holds of the relation of rhetoric to all the other arts; the rhetorician need not know the truth about things; he has only to discover some way of persuading the ignorant that he has more knowledge than those who know?

Gor. Yes, Socrates, and is not this a great comfort?-not to have learned the other arts, but the art of rhetoric only, and yet to be in no way inferior to the professors of them?
Gorgias, who is often (I think) understood as a kind of jovial dandy, admits in this section that the rhetor need have no expertise of any subject except the art of rhetoric. And if the rhetor have that single expertise, he will not be in any way inferior to the experts (for example, physicians) who have acquired knowledge. Socrates, straining himself, manages to get Gorgias to admit that a) the rhetorician is ignorant of the knowledge of the physician, but, b) that the rhetorician may be more persuasive with others ignorant of the knowledge of the physician than the physician himself.

For example: Imagine a person with an acute pain in the lower back walks into a doctor's office where Gorgias has been invited as part of an experiment. After the patient describes his symptoms, the physician taps on his back a little bit, maybe runs a blood test (whatever) and concludes that the person is suffering from kidney failure. The physician tells the patient as much. Then it's Gorgias' turn. Gorgias, more persuasive than the physician, but having no idea what is causing the patient's pain, pronounces that there's nothing to worry about -- he gives a small discourse on the nature of the immune system (borrowing vocabulary from the physician himself and something he saw on the Discovery Channel, or whatever)... and the patient is convinced that Gorgias is right.

I am hopeful that this scenario seems improbable -- that you suspect nothing of the kind would ever have happened. That Gorgias simply would have deferred to the doctor in such a case. I'm convinced Gorgias would have done that, as almost any sane human would do. This part is important, though: does everyone agree that Gorgias wouldn't just "make shit up" to win an argument about a person's health? My question is: why do we read it that way? What motivation lies underneath Gorgias' deference?*

All of this is begging a question about expertise and its more ambiguous cousin, authority. Both terms are related to the underlying question of whether knowledge is possible. Socrates uses the example of the physician because it is fairly self-evident, in that case, that the answer is "Yes, knowledge and expertise are possible in the field of human health." But Socrates makes a leap after the excerpt from the dialogue above. He continues,
Whether the rhetorician is or not inferior on this account is a question which we will hereafter examine if the enquiry is likely to be of any service to us; but I would rather begin by asking, whether he is as ignorant of the just and unjust, base and honourable, good and evil, as he is of medicine and the other arts; I mean to say, does he really know anything of what is good and evil, base or honourable, just or unjust in them; or has he only a way with the ignorant of persuading them that he not knowing is to be esteemed to know more about these things than some. one else who knows?
But the same question ought to remain: is it possible to be an expert, to have knowledge, of Justice and Goodness? I believe (correct me if I'm wrong) this is the point where contemporary academic Rhetoricians would object... that is, they would answer, "No, this kind of knowledge cannot be mastered but can only be negotiated, created and encoded in the processes of language." Let's come back to this.

Part II

The list of Classical martyrs to Philosophy include:
  • Socrates (hemlock)
  • Zeno (who, failing in his attempt to kill the tyrant Demylus, "with his own teeth bit off his tongue, he spit it in the tyrant's face."
  • Empedocles (throwing himself into a volcano)
At my small, traditionally-Baptist University in North Carolina, when I teach Walt Whitman, I often ask my students about the similarities between Whitman's language and Jesus'. I ask them to imagine a Jesus who was never crucified, but who was only a wisdom-teacher. I ask them whether his crucifixion elevates his ideas. "Yes," they often say. "Jesus' ideas are more authoritative than Whitman's because Jesus was persecuted to the point of death for his ideas, and never wavered." I often counter by saying, "Yes, but isn't it the willingness to die for an idea, rather than the death itself--" And sometimes I add, "And 'the terrorists' are often willing to die for their ideas... does that make their ideas authoritative?"

The list of modern (Renaissance and later) philosophers who died for their ideas is not as well known to me. I can't think of any. The list of post WWII philosophers who died for their ideas... again, can't think of any. The number of academic philosophers who died for a conference paper is almost certainly zero. My point here is that Philosophy used to be something worth dying for, and has by now become a diversion of the bourgeois. Somewhere along the way, the thread was lost. All of this makes Classical Philosophy seem much more closely associated with early Christianity (think of Jesus and his disciples as social philosophers) than it has to do with contemporary academic Philosophy.

Part III

Peter Kingsley, in his 2003 book Reality (a book I've mentioned before), makes an extensive study of three giants of the Classical world: Parmenides, Empedocles... and Gorgias. Kingsley is convinced that Parmenides was much, much more like a shaman than he was like Jena-Paul Sartre or Martin Heidegger. Read the short wikipedia page about the term Iatromantis, a Greek term used to describe Parmenides' social function. Please spend some time understanding this term. Understand this claim. Picture in your head what your average village Iatromantis looked like, the ways he probably talked, etc. It's important that you refuse to accept this view of Parmenides if you don't want to be persuaded by what follows... an Iatromantis' techniques included, among other things, sitting at the edge of a cave while one of their clients went inside and lay down for three days, perfectly still. It was called "Incubation," and it was intended to bring about a serious transformation in the client (I'm not going to call it "spiritual" or "psychological" or "ideological" or anything).

Further, Kingsley argues that Parmenides' famous poem makes it absolutely clear that something has been lost in translation over the years: after all, would the "father of logic" (as Parmenides is known) really write something like this:

I will do the talking; and it's up to you
to carry away my words once you have heard them.
What I will tell you is which roads of inquiry,
and which roads alone, exist for thinking.
The one route, that is, and is not possible not to be,
is the way of Persuasion; for Persuasion is
Truth's attendant. And as for the other,
that is not, and is necessary not to be:
this, I can tell you, is a path from which no news
returns. For there is no way you can recognize
what is not--there is no travelling that path--
or tell anything about it.

This is, as Kingsley points out, absurd in its vagueness, and utterly unlike anything written by Locke or Hume or Kant or others whom we think of as Philosophers. Kingsley shows that Parmenides intended the poem itself to be the pedagogue... which is to say, the poem gives its readers the pure experience (not notion, or idea, or understanding) of mystery. Parmenides' poem is all about the reaction it causes in its readers. It is about audience. It may be recognized as a (ahem) sophisticated kind of rhetoric.

In the course of his poem, Parmenides makes it clear that he is contending that there is only One thing in the universe. Then Kingsley turns to Empedocles, a man who "argued" contrary to Parmenides that the state of Oneness Parmenides describes is only a momentary part in a huge cosmic cycle of separation and reunion, Strife and Love, always repeated. Empedocles has his own poem (strange that these ancient Philosophers should use poetry as a vehicle, no?), and according to Kingsley, Empedocles writes his poem for precisely the same reason that Parmenides wrote his: to cause a certain effect in the reader. Before moving on, Kingsley notes that Empodocles' death sort of caused by his convictions.

So here are two Granddaddies of Philosophy arguing (apparently) different things, with Kingsley claiming that their arguments are only superficially important compared to the influence these arguments have on the reader. Kingsley's Empedocles, like Kingsley's Parmenides, was much more like a shaman (or maybe a zen teacher) than he was like a contemporary academic Philosopher or Rhetorician or Theorist. Both said what they said to produce an effect in their listeners. Kingsley writes,
For Empedocles' teaching is, after all, something that has to believed. After experiencing death while still alive you have to bring that understanding back into life, or what people call life... First, madness has to be experienced; then controlled. And to do this is to discover all kinds of sanities, of ways for operating skillfully in the world.
To discover all kinds of sanities. I like that. Think of it as the "end" of Parmenides & Empedocles' teaching.

And, for a moment, as the "end" of Gorgias' teaching. Kingsley's last target is Gorgias -- and he presents him as another in that immensely important sequence: Parmenides (shaman), Empedocles (guru), and Gorgias (as Zen instructor?!). And I'll tell you the truth, when I turned to that page describing Gorgias that way my jaw-bone about fell off. I had expected anything but that move. Gorgias? The charismatic dandy who sold his speechifying for ten dollars on the corner market? Couldn't be. After all, Gorgias is the hero of my Rhetorician friends, who claim him as the godfather of their discipline, who uniformly dismiss as unserious all occultist/preternatural narratives like this.

To quote from Kingsley again:
Ancient writers quite often mention in passing that Empedocles had a successor. To quote the words of one author who neatly summed up the situation as a whole: "Parmenides was the teacher of Empedocles who was the teacher of Gorgias." (Kingsley's source is Olympiodorus, a sixth century philosopher who delivered and recorded a lecture on Gorgias)
And just to be clear, Kingsley's not saying anything (yet) that should offend anyone... he writes,
That [this tradition] should run from Parmenides, a "Monist," to the "Pluralist" Empedocles is bad enough; but that it should run from them to Gorgias is far worse. At least Parmenides and Empedocles were both philosophers. And yet Gorgias has come to be considered something very different from any philosopher... He used to be known as a sophist. In fact he was sometimes even referred to as the father of the sophists. And however much individual scholars might try to shift or redefine the dividing line between sophists and philosophers, the division still stands.
But Kingsley suggests that even Gorgias' difference is only apparent, only superficial. Kingsley argues that Gorgias, like Parmenides and Empedocles before him, was all about producing an effect on his listeners... a specific effect: it is to cajole us into not realizing or understanding, but experiencing that everything we think we know is an illusion. [What if you have been that listener all along, and your teachers have been saying whatever they needed to say--quoting Jesus, Foucault, Kant, Gorgias, whoever--to get you to experience that effect? No... it couldn't be.]

Kingsley finishes his argument with a few chapters on kairos -- first explaining what it means, and then explaining that it could lead a speaker to say apparently contradictory things at different times because the listeners in different times might need to hear different things in order to have that experience. Kingsley's Gorgias was precisely like a zen teacher, trying to "unstick" his listeners from their intellectual constructs.

Conclusion

Obviously, Kingsley can't "force" his interpretation of Gorgias onto anyone. Feel free to reject it and continue thinking you know who and what Gorgias was. But I do want to return to two earlier points: 1) the question of motivation: why wouldn't Gorgias just "make some shit up" to win an argument regarding healthcare, and, 2) the question of the stakes of philosophy.

Regarding #1: my answer is that contemporary interpeters of Gorgias who think of him as a playful jester-like figure with no aims at all can make no explanation for why no academic Philosophers have died for Philosophy in a long time.

Concerning #2: Philosophy used to be worth dying for because some philosophers may have deemed the aim of giving that experience of "unknowing" to others to be that important.

I return to Socrates, most hated rhetor of them all, who discovered a new way to produce the highly prized effect in his listeners:
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, as in the case of sight at the end of the visible.
Interestingly, Kingsley rejects Plato and Socrates as the duo who first ruined the project of Philosophy... who first began transforming it into the de-clawed jellyfish it is today. But I include them -- I see that Socrates' "hymn of dialectic" was precisely that experiential undoing of the claims of knowledge produced by Gorgias' verbal tricks and by Empedocles' and Parmenides' poems. In my judgment, Rhetoric needs no defense insofar as it participates in this tradition.

One thing to think about, before I retreat, though: it may well be that kairos demands a generation of Ricard J. Sheeeehn's and Dunder Blacksleys (you know who I'm talking about) in order to produce the overwhelming experience of unknowing in a generation of young people. It may even be that what it takes to produce the effect is saying you have no ends at all, and do not intend to produce any effect in your listeners. The final question should be this: what effect are contemporary disciplines like Philosophy, Rhetoric, Theory, and (yes) Literature having on the public? Could they have more impact if they were more... Iatromantic? Does Derrida "work better" in the image of Sartre or in the image of the Oracle of Delphi? To change a person's vocabulary is a minor feat. To give them the freedom to act differently, to change their haircut or start playing the oboe -- is perhaps a greater feat. For those contemporary academics who have considered these questions carefully, I have great respect, regardless of what their performance looks like... but for those who claim, even to themselves in the secret recesses of night, to have no ends in mind for their listeners -- well, I've got a poem or two I'd like them to read.

---------

*By the way, if you don't read Gorgias this way, and instead assume he would just flippantly disregard the best interest of the patient to win an argument, then the rest of the Gorgias dialogue ought to put to rest any possibility of taking Gorgias seriously as an ethical person or thinker. Obviously.

5.12.2009

Russians Matter

Time for a deep breath and a belly laugh. My favorite part about this video is the way Pasha's right ankle can roll inward dramatically without any sign of discomfort to Pasha. My original source for the video quoted a few of the Russian comments; my favorite was: "He is like Neo!"

Oh, and...

That excerpt from the novel (see below) and the comments in some of my recent posts have inspired me to link to a post I did a while back about "initiation," and how experience precedes language.  Some of you missed it the first time around.

That's about all I can offer this morning.  Three posts forthcoming:
  1. I thought of a title for a pop-philosophy book I'm going to publish in a few years: Just as Bad as Presbyterians.
  2. A post interpreting the teachings of Gorgias (read up!).
  3. A post on Wallace Stevens' Necessary Angel and the idea of Literature as Religion

Summer Reading

I'm reading another contemporary Russian novel, something I try to do at least twice every summer (I read a good one this winter too).  This time it's Vladimir Sorokin's 2002 novel, Ice.  This excerpt seemed to have some bearing on the ongoing conversation around here lately; I reproduce it without comment:
"Then this guy followed me into the apartment.  Handcuffed me.  A woman came in.  They hammered two spike things into the wall.  And strung me up with a rope.  They crucified me, goddamnit, on the wall, like Christ.  So.  And then... it was... very strange... they opened a sort of... it was like a safe... and there was this weird hammer in it... an odd, archaic sort of form... with a handle made from a branch... very crude.  But the hammerhead wasn't steel or wood, it was ice.  Ice.  I don't know whether it was artificial or real, but it was ice.  And then--picture this--the broad starts slamming my chest with this hammer.  She keeps saying, 'Talk to me with your heart, tell me with your heart.'  But... it was so strange!  They taped my mouth shut!  With packing tape.  I'm mooing, she's bashing me.  With all her fucking strength, man.  So, this ice splinters and flies around the room.  She's pounding me and talking all this bullshit.  It hurt like hell, went straight through me.  I've never felt pain like that.  Even when my meniscus went out.  So.  They're banging and banging me.  Then I just lost consciousness."
He took a swallow from the glass.
Savva listened.
"Sav, this all sounds like nonsense.  Or a dream.  But--here, take a look..." He unbuttoned his shirt to show the huge bruise on his chest.  "That's not a dream."
Savva stretched out a pudgy hand.  He touched it.
"Does it hurt?"
"A bit... when you press it.  My head hurts.  And my neck."
"Drink, Borya, relax."
"And you?"
"I... I have to go in early tomorrow, that is, today."
Borenboim emptied the glass of whisky.  Savva poured some more right away.
"But the most interesting part was after.  I wake up and I'm sitting in a Jacuzzi.  There are two women with me.  The water's bubbling.  And these women start patting me gently and telling me some nonsense about a brotherhood, that we're all brothers and sisters--talking about sincerity, frankness, and so on.  It turns out that they'd been hit in the chest with the same kind of hammer, they showed me the scars.  Actual scars.  And they were pounded until they spoke with their hearts.  They said all of us in this fucking brotherhood have our own names.  Their names were Var, Mar, I don't remember.  And my name--is Mokho.  You get it?"
"What?"
"Mokho!"
"Mokho?" Savva looked at him with small, weak-sighted eyes.
"My name is Mokho!" Borenboim shouted and began laughing.  He leaned against the back of the stainless-steel chair.  Clutched at his chest.  Winced.  Swayed.

5.11.2009

Experience without Language: the "constant state of witnessing"

Ken Wilber's sometimes annoying, but this video sure is interesting.

A Perfect Illustration

...it happened again today....

Emerson & Lanham -- Perception & Rhetoric

From Ralph Waldo Emerson, from his 1841 essay, "Self-Reliance":
Thoughtless people contradict as readily the statement of perceptions as of opinions, or rather much more readily; for, they do not distinguish between perception and notion. They fancy that I choose to see this or that thing. But perception is not whimsical, but fatal. If I see a trait, my children will see it after me, and in course of time, all mankind, — although it may chance that no one has seen it before me. For my perception of it is as much a fact as the sun.
From Richard Lanham, pointed out by Noise-in-Formation (some time after 1841):
...truth is determined by social dramas, some more formal than others but all man-made. Rhetoric in such a world is not ornamental but determinative, essentially creative. Truth once created in this way becomes referential, as in legal precedent. The Strong Defense implies a figure/ground shift between philosophy and rhetoric-in fact, as we shall see, a continued series of shifts.
It seems to me that Lanham is not distinguishing between perception and notion. Any comments? Either that, or I'm missing where he makes the distinction. Try to fill in the blank:
  • Perception : notion :: Rhetoric : _______
Plagiarism issues aside, Lanham seems to be collapsing an important distinction... I certainly won't call him a "thoughtless person," but I would be interested in hearing how and when this collapse toook place, and I will further ask who wasn't looking? Wrangler you've said recently that there is no consciousness without language." Wishydig and I and Emerson disagree.

I do think we might say:
  • Perception : notion :: Consciousness : Language
But you seem to be arguing for collapsing that distinction. You believe, for example, that a mosquito (a being without language) perceives, but that human perception can never be like a mosquito's, which is to say unmediated by language. I'm saying it can be. And I'm also saying that as Rhetoric tries to replace metaphysics at the foundation place in Western thought (once again?), it will have to articulate a clear and persuasive rationale for this collapse.

[As I'm starting to understand this argument, feel free to point out any unfair summaries or my use of any "skewed" definitions. This whole conversation seems WILDLY important to me. Here's how I feel: like I'm fourteen years old and I just walked into the kitchen and my mom and dad were talking and saying, "I think we should leave tomorrow." "No, I think we should leave Wednesday." And I ask, "What's this about leaving?" And they say, "Oh, yeah... we've been talking about it and we've decided to move to Hawaii and we're either leaving Tuesday or Wednesday," and then they try to get back to the debate about whether the departure is going to be Tuesday or Wednesday. Naturally, I'm about to say, "Wait a fucking minute. Nobody's going anywhere until Casey gets convinced this is a necessary and proper move." And that may just be a perfect explanation of how I feel, especially if it ends up being Rhetoric that makes the final decision: "Because I said so, that's why."]

5.10.2009

Mind & Heart

This would probably have worked better as a personal-message on Facebook or a comment or whatever, but since I intend this blog to be a record of what I'm thinking, I'm going to do a second (or third?) follow-up to my post about defending the study of literature.

My friend Wrangler--who might by now consider himself my adversary--brought the conversation to a very fine point in the comments section two posts ago. He wrote,

But to claim that I have not had this "experience" of which you speak is offensive, elitist, and exactly the kind of egoist orientation toward others (as unresponsive texts awaiting the light of your intelligence) that forces me to resist Literary Study in the first place. Check that--that lead me to transfer out of a PhD program in literature to a program in rhetoric.
Wrangler makes two important points: 1) I shouldn't be so presumptuous to claim that he has not had the literary experience. 2) Literature is defined as "unresponsive texts awaiting the light of your intelligence."

To make quick, conciliatory work of point #1: I assumed Wrangler hadn't had the experience I am trying to describe because he has told me on numerous occasions that he doesn't believe in that kind of experience. In my most recent post, I called it "enlightenment," "gnosis," "escape-from-dialectic," etc. I'd like for Wrangler to weigh in on that point, and to let me know if he has had a moment like that, but that is a minor point in my judgment compared to point #2...

#2: Wrangler gave up on literary study because it did not seem worth his while to study "unresponsive texts awaiting the light of [his] intelligence."

That would make sense to me if literary texts were like ongoing conversations in a parlor. But what I have learned is that literary texts can be like a dear friend who has just found out on the phone, in front of you, that their father has died... and you as the reader are like a person whose parents are both still living.

Those of us in the field of literature who are trying to emphasize this distinction may be called "experientialists" (if the term doesn't bother): scholars like Sacvan Bercovitch, who prefaced his 1993 book The Rites of Assent with a personal narrative about his Jewishness, his Brooklyn-ness, his 1950's-ness, and tried to explain why these texts "felt" the way they did to him... and like James Phelan, whose 2007 book Experiencing Fiction moves still further from the rhetorical situation that Wrangler describes. In this new kind of literary study, analysis and explanation are devalued while something else is privileged.

What is this something else? Well, if you assume that your "job" during/after reading a novel is to "respond analytically," either in writing or in conversation... you may assume more than is necessary. It may be only & precisely your job to listen.

This is a different take on ethics. It is an alternative to the Levinasian, yes -- but I think it is no less formidable. Where Levinas asks his ethical beings to "respond" to the "face" of the "other," Experientialists (that term has a nice ring, ey?) see the response as something that happens after the ethical moment. The ethical moment takes place in the "other's" narration of experience -- e.g., when they tell you that they just found out their father died. Reading literary texts is the perfect kind of practice for these unspeakable moments precisely because they force us to become allow us the opportunity to become quiet and attentive. And that, in my view, is ethical behavior.

Of course, many a reader will persist in "responding" to the literary texts they read by jamming marginal comments in, writing notes to themselves, underlining, composing essays, publishing books, etc. But I see all of that kind of activity as akin to whipping out a tape recorder after "My father just died--" and asking, "Do you mind if I record this?--I'm working on a book about death and mourning and I could so use this."

Analysis vs. Experience. Mind vs. "Heart."

I absolutely anticipate that my three or two readers will have "had enough of all this" by now. In case not, I recommend two compelling podcasts on the topic:

1. "The Heart Doctrine," from Gnostic Radio (skip the "donate here" button)
2. "The Zen Tree Fort in the Sky," from Buddhist Geeks Podcast

Number two is probably more engaging. Number one is probably a better "argument."

CHALLENGE: In my humble and limited imagination, the arts--music, poetry, etc.--offer much more in the way of "Heart" than the coarser disciplines (Corporate Finance, Management... Linguistics, and... Rhetoric?). But prove me wrong: I'd love to read a blog-post titled "The Heart of Rhetoric," so that I may understand how that discipline engages human emotion and sentiment.

N.B. -- I'm not saying that analytical thinking is always wrong and "Heart" stuff is always right. But I do believe American academic culture to have gone too far, even within its context, in the direction of Head, while neglecting the Heart.

Resisting the Prophet's claims

These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.
Awakening. Salvation. Enlightenment. Gnosis. Experiencing the "hymn of dialectic." Transcending. The sensation of Oneness. The Peace that passes all understanding. In this essay I am going to write in the voice of a person who has had this experience, and I am going to call it "the experience."

People sometimes ask me whether I believe in the experience. I can only say that the experience is not something that can be understood or explained, and can only do my best to communicate that single fact over and over again. As far as I know, there is no prerequisite knowledge that one must gather before having the experience. There is no essential vocabulary. No academic degree can promise anyone the experience.

Before I had the experience, there were many things I did not believe in. I did not believe in "God" or heaven or reincarnation. I did not believe in Marxism, and I resisted things like "postmodernism," anarchism, capitalism, and so on. Indeed, I disbelieved in almost everything on the eve of having the experience.

Since then, I have read accounts of other people's experiences. Most of them seem to have had a slightly different apprenticeship on the way to the experience. Instead of adamantly disbelieving in as much as they could, they were what I call "constricted believers"--that is, they believed very strongly in one dead tradition or other. They generally called themselves "Atheists" or "Christians" or "Muslims" or "Advaitists" or "Jainists" or "Buddhists" or whatever.

Despite our differences on the way to the experience, I have found that there is absolutely no disagreement after the experience about what the experience is, or whether it exists.

But as I have said, people who have not had the experience occasionally ask me to defend the path I took to get to the experience. And no matter how hard I try to make it clear that the way one takes is laughably unimportant from the perspective of one who has had the experience, it seems that my questioners cannot help but focus on my path instead of the experience itself.

People who are "path-obsessed" are themselves the cause of the tradition that involves an "experienced" mentor/teacher/guru/shaman telling a student to jump through a given number of hoops in a particular manner: "Go outside and find 'your' spot on the front porch. I will not teach you until you have found your spot. Make sure to sit cross-legged (right leg on top) when you find your spot." The master's intention here is nothing other than to shake the path-obsessed student of their obsession with the path. As somebody who has had the experience once said, "The way matters but little; the will to arrive suffices."

But the path-obsessed are nimble and graceful compared to the stubborn mules who refuse to believe there is any "experience." These I call the "Intractables." Refusing to believe that there is anything on the other side of the ocean, the Intractables refuse to embark on a voyage; and by their refusals, they obliterate their natural curiosity to know what's on the other side. The Intractables would sooner look me in the eye and tell me that my own experience of the experience must be a kind of madness, or a chemical imbalance, or something of that nature -- anything rather than admit there may be land on the other side of that vast ocean. [Sidepoint: caution: this is only a metaphor... we should remember the reminder given to us by another of those who had the experience: "They also serve who only stand and wait." The other side of the Ocean may well come and get these Intractables.]

Or, if they be that rare case, not "believing" in the possibility of the experience, but disciplined enough to admit the possibility that I have experienced something they have not, they will have sculpted themselves into a perfect mystery to me. For my thesis will always be: "This experience has occurred at least once. I know it from experience." And for those wise enough to not argue that point, the experience may be closer to them than they know. Of these I ask only, in good faith, tell me what is in your heart--speak that.

5.08.2009

Literary Analysis: The Weak Defense, Defended Experientially

I've been duking it out with some friends who studied Rhetoric in graduate school. Knowing me as well as they do, they'll permit a little good-natured rant without hard feelings:

In my experience, people who go on to get Ph.D.s in Rhetoric tended to major in English in college. That means they read up to six or eight plays by Shakespeare, one book by Nathaniel Hawthorne and a few stories, one book by Jane Austen (maybe two), something by William Blake, something by a Russian (maybe), something by about two African American writers, and the Odyssey. Add to that whatever literary fetish they developed on their own time: if they loved Jane Austen, maybe they read four of her novels.

Five to seven years later, upon completing a graduate degree in Rhetoric (a field that diligently ignores narrative as if it is not a form of rhetoric), having read somewhere between a couple dozen and zero novels and poems since finishing college (Wrangler), they feel confident enough to ask the discipline of literary analysis (a field that happens to be about a hundred years longer in the tooth) to defend its very existence -- and they ask, albeit in a tone that could be mistaken for politeness, as if they have a thorough understanding of what the discipline of literary analysis involves.

The first thing it involves is reading literature. Rather than reading excerpts from Moby-Dick, for example, a person in the discipline of American Literature may read Typee, Mardi, Moby-Dick, Pierre, Israel Potter, The Confidence-Man, Battle-Pieces, Billy Budd, as well as multiple biographies, letters (to Hawthorne and others), and upwards of a hundred related critical books. That would probably earn someone a master's degree in the field. To get a Ph.D., you'll have to be familiar with Melville's own sources: that means reading Bible (for example, the story of King Ahab, Jonah-swallowed-by-a-whale, Paul's letters, etc.), Plato, Aristotle, and Gorgias, Plotinus, Tacitus, Thucydides, then Madison, Hamilton, Jefferson, then Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, Kant, Hume, Locke ("So, when on one side you hoist in Locke's head, you go over that way; but now, on the other side, hoist in Kant's and you come back again; but in very poor plight. Thus, some minds for ever keep trimming boat. Oh, ye foolish! throw all these thunder-heads overboard, and then you will float light and right."), Emmanuel Swedenborg, Cooper, Irving, Poe, Hawthorne, and an article about Melville's father-in-law, Lemuel Shaw, who was a judge attending to a case related to the definition of insanity, and a margin-note in Melville's volume of Shakespeare taken (and altered) from Sir Francis Palgrave's 1823 article on the question of sanity.

And to rest on those laurels would indeed by a weak defense. To say, "Those things are inherently worth knowing, and sharing even some of that with our undergraduates cannot be anything but an overall benefit" -- to say that would be a weak defense.

So let me make one point. One single point. If you can understand this, you will understand why the process of reading literature and literary analysis has always been needed, and why it's not going away. I hope my point is not diminished by the fact that it is borrowed from Buddha's Diamond Sutra. After Buddha was preaching for a while,

Subhuti asked, “Lord, will there always be people who understand your message?”

Buddha answered, “Don’t doubt it, Subhuti! There will always be people who, hearing the message, will adhere to the precepts and practice our way. Our message will reach people simply because it is true! There will come a time when many will no longer need words, but will be beyond words. We must all strive to go beyond the words, because words can be clung to, and we should not cling to things. Understand that the words of the Buddha are like a raft built to cross a river: When its purpose is completed, it must be left behind if we are to travel further!

The discipline of literary analysis is precisely like that. It is like a raft. It is not "the Melville" that is important. It is not the fact that, to write about Melville, one needs to complete a deep education in the traditional liberal arts. The knowledge itself is "throwaway." The process --the actual doing -- of literary analysis is the teacher.

But here's the thing (almost done): this raft cannot be described. You cannot understand it by putting one foot on it while you're an undergraduate (i.e., by getting an English major). Its outcome cannot be described, cannot be analyzed, but must be experienced. Read Emily's poem just one... more... time: "Conversion of the Mind / Like Sanctifying in the Soul-- / Is witnessed-- not explained--"

This is a final defense. What I am arguing is that this path must be traversed to be understood, and you have not traversed it. There is no way to quantify it. Precisely like spiritual "enlightenment," it is for initiates only, and you are not initiated. You mock the modern (and ancient) notion of enlightenment without having the experience of enlightenment. You are like the cynic who proclaims that love does not exist before he experiences love for himself.

So back to the original question: why should literary analysis be taught in public universities? I take the Weak Defense of Arnold and Bloom: the study of literature is inherently valuable and good, and does produce better people. I know that because I, like Arnold and Bloom, have experienced its converting power. The fact that you have not experienced the "enlightenment" I'm talking about is only evidence, from my perspective, that undergraduate education probably should require more literary analysis (obviously, the little you got didn't do the trick).

In other words: We're on the other side of the river. You'll have to trust us in the same way that some of you trusted clergy when you were young. And if you don't, when you are the Deans, send us packing. That might make for an interesting scene.

5.07.2009

Unholy Crap

The Republican party is soooo ridiculous right now.  Look at this video.  I hope this video makes it to the Library of Congress so that future historians can write about this absurd period early in the 21st century.

The Meat is Halfway Down, or: The Weak Defense, Defended Weakly

Topic: the place of literary studies in the contemporary university.

Starting point: the old argument--the one offered by Matthew Arnold, Bertrand Russell, George Santayana, Harold Bloom, and others--doesn't work anymore.

My friend writes,
In the contemporary American university, literary studies could easily be considered the canary in the coal mine of humanities education. Among the last of the trappings of traditional liberal education (i.e. lessons in the Classic languages, refinement through philosophy, and exclusion of women), literature has long been where the vestiges of liberal thinking (cultural, not political) held ground. But we’ve know for some time that the bird is gasping for air under the pressure of corporate administrations and vocational curricula that demand its relevance beyond the crumbling walls of the ivory tower. In other words, rather than being a vestige, literature seems increasingly vestigial.
And assume that when she says "literature" in that last sentence, she means "literary study in the academy."

My dialogue partner suggests two rhetorical paths for defending literature: the strong defense and the weak defense. The strong defense, she implies, will answer for literature's use-value and necessity in the context of the increasingly corporate and vocational university system. The weak defense (and I think it's my role to defend this path) involves defending literature without making appeals to use-value or necessity within a corporate/business/industrial setting. In short, the weak defense appeals to a latent/vestigial/imaginary conscience for subsidization.

My knee-jerk defense on Facebook, where the dialogue started, was to compare literary studies to monastic life, and to a kind of spiritual pursuit. But my friend pointed out (justifiably) that a religion unconnected to the world is not, from the perspective of the world, worth funding. So that's about where we were...

-------

For a moment, let's make this a question of (generic) rhetorical theory: when does the weak defense ever work? When is it wise to appeal to conscience rather than pragmatics? The only time I can imagine relying on the weak argument is when you believe that your audience has already made up its mind. Example: a mob is angry at me and I am brought before it to testify, and I believe that I am less likely to be deemed guilty if I keep silent than I am if I speak. That is: I use the weak argument when I believe the strong argument is worse than no argument at all.

Ironically, this is a difficult point to make in theoretical terms. In narrative terms, it's quite an easy phenomenon to observe:
They arrived again in Jerusalem, and while Jesus was walking in the temple courts, the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders came to him. "By what authority are you doing these things?" they asked. "And who gave you authority to do this?" Jesus replied, "I will ask you one question. Answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John's baptism—was it from heaven, or from men? Tell me!" They discussed it among themselves and said, "If we say, 'From heaven,' he will ask, 'Then why didn't you believe him?' But if we say, 'From men'...." (They feared the people, for everyone held that John really was a prophet.) So they answered Jesus, "We don't know." Jesus said, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things."
Part of me regrets the source of this narrative -- part of me revels in the irksomeness of it. In any case, isn't this the question: "by what authority?" Why does our hero (okay, sorry--that's too playful) Jesus refuse to answer the question with a strong defense?

The answer, as I understand it, is that constructing a strong defense would have been an implicit recognition of the authority of the temple courts and chief priests. Instead, by refusing to engage the argument, Jesus forces the temple courts and the chief priests to understand that their authority is based solely on power. Simultaneously, he identifies an alternative source of authority (though he won't go so far as to name it): the authority of John's baptisms.

Two points: 1) literary studies assumes that authority rests with the Demos, and literary studies (at least some faction of it) will continue making the weak argument until it is crucified by the Demos. The discomfort opponents experience in reaction to literary studies choosing this path--the pleading to hear a strong defense--sounds to me like the old "C'mon, hit me. I don't hit no man first" argument. 2) I hope it's at least intriguing that my argument relies fundamentally on narrative and narrative analysis. If there is an authentic strong defense, it will be a performance, not an argument, on literature's terms (that is, it will be a narrative).

So in the end the weak defense stands there, already beaten, unwillinng to participate in its own execution:
And one more last ditch weak defense: what is the strong defense for the contemporary university's insistence on maintaining beautiful hedging and neatly mowed lawns, flower gardens and bicycle paths? By what authority are you doing these things?

5.06.2009

Four Ideas and some Iron Bars

"A mind enclosed in language is in prison." --Simone Weil

Me & one of my favorite sparring partners are having a conversation about--well, among other things--whether human beings are mediated by language. So, for example, are we, as Walter Ong apparently has suggested, bewitched by grammar and language? That's how Wrangler put it in the comments section... and further, he wrote, "there is no consciousness without language," and then refined that by suggesting that "language" might be taken to mean "analysis." That's an important point: being trapped by language sounds abstract. Being trapped by our "human" need to create narratives, to explain, to understand -- that seems like a very distinct possibility.

So the question is, are we really stuck in such a way? One quick story:

When I was 21 and realizing that I didn't want to major in biology and chemistry, I was listening to a lot of Dave Matthews. At the time, I was convinced that it was because his lyrics were "deep" and that the language he used meant a lot to me. I read the CD jackets like they were poetry, and that probably did jump-start my interest in language enough to "convert" to English as a major.

When I met my wife, I told her that Dave Matthews and Bob Dylan were great poets. She mocked me and said that was ridiculous, and suggested further that my statement revealed how little I understood about poetry. She told me to take any Dylan song I could think of--his most poetic (I took "Blowin' in the Wind")--and print the lyrics out. Then she made me read the lyrics without keeping the tune. I recognized almost immediately that the music was at least as important to the overall effect as the language was.
Before then, I was certain that Dave Matthews' song "Warehouse" was a piercing allegory for human existence. After, I wanted to listen to (not "learn about") more classical music. [NOTE: if I had been driven by the human need to understand, to create narratives, I might have tried to learn about musicology or studied how certain combinations of notes can create certain emotional reactions, and maybe even written a paper on that. I didn't.] The key point here is that I believed that it was language that was moving me when, in fact, it was not (at least not completely) language. Of course, you might be tempted to make the case that music is a language, but I'd advise against it--from just the little I've overheard about music theory.

So: Stop listening to the words and hear the music. Is that a maxim that can be expanded to signify on another level? Can there be consciousness without language? Can I be conscious without language? Here's a couple-three self-portraits (like the one at top) that I made one time when I was trying to find out if it was possible to think without language:


I'm not sure what, if anything, these photoshoppers are evidence of... but if it seems like only a conscious being could make them, I can assure you that language played no part in the process. Do they communiate anything? Do they offer an experience? Do they invite analysis? That's all a mystery to me.

My final point: I don't share Wrangler's belief that human beings cannot be conscious without being conscious-through-language. But if I did, I feel like I would try anything to break out of that prisonhouse. And, as I started planning my escape, I would be very careful to not include writing or talking about my escape.

5.04.2009

Let the evangelizing begin, then!

I've been occasionally visiting the Unitarian Universalist Church of Charlotte since February. The church's "communication team" recently revamped their webpage. Now you can listen to sermons without driving to Charlotte every Sunday (there's also a Podcast available for download to your iTunes). There are two sermons available so far. I can only recommend the sermon on "Compassion," but I'm sure the "Marking Six Years of the War in Iraq" is interesting too. I guess I'm into this church because it doesn't seem to oppose my real religion, and often even draws from it. And because the preacher-man, Jay Leach, is a Ralph Waldo Emerson scholar.

The "Compassion" sermon quotes Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Tara Brach (Buddhist meditative instructor and clinical psychologist), Emily Dickinson ("If I can stop one heart from breaking,/I shall not live in vain"), R.E.M. (the band), and Henry Ward Beecher. And not Jesus or "God."

UPDATE: See also, Stanley Fish's opinion piece from today's NY Times.

5.03.2009

Oh no... is this it for me?

I'm feeling very comfortable about what I believe lately, and that makes me really uncomfortable... I don't even have any questions, really. Like, I know what I think about Justice, about G-d, about ethics, literature, metaphysics, marriage, abortion, the death penalty, legalizing pot, Jesus, Buddha, Moses, organized religion, mysticism, forgiveness, adolescence, parenthood, and death. And not just that: I know I will always like to watch baseball and play golf, swim in big lakes, watch space-ships take off, listen to other people's music, and so on. And maybe worse yet, I think everybody I know could more or less guess what I feel about any of the "intellectual" subjects listed above, even if they haven't heard me think about them explicitly. And I'm also perfectly aware of the skewed nature of my attention -- I am drawn to the extremely physical and the extremely "academic," and I probably over-value the West and the East, and undervalue the everything else.

And as I said, I don't like knowing that you know what I think, and knowing myself so well. I'm afraid I've stopped learning. I'm no surprise at all, neither to myself nor to anybody else. Ya'll know me as well as anyone... so what am I missing? Are there questions I haven't asked? Or maybe I've got something wrong? Seriously: suggest a topic that you think would "move" me in the right direction. Every idea seems to bore me lately. Help.