2.28.2010

For Exposition; Against Critical Analysis

[This is new for me: watching the gold medal hockey game while doing a blog post. I expect the quality of both activities to decrease, now that I'm hip to the laptop way.]

One of my hobbies is trying to see my way out of the matrix. For most academics, there's an unwillingness to believe that the matrix could have a hold of them. Oh, the hoi polloi, sure, but not us. Or if they admit that they are as much inside the matrix as others, they are likely to tell you there's just no getting out. And that's where I disagree--which is why I'm always talking about enlightenment and awakening and the "hymn of dialectic" and so on.

Let me get to my point: the matrix trapping most contemporary academics has a hundred dead-end corridors marked "Analysis of...," and one escape hatch that's marked, "Exposition of..."

If you're like me, you haven't thought of writing an expository essay since your own freshman composition class (and if you aren't like me, but are in academia, you probably tested out of freshman composition!). Expository writing can serve some really valuable purposes, though; and just as analytical writing corresponds to analytical thinking, expository writing turns over into expository thinking.

Let's take a text for example (James Madison's Federalist No. 10):
AMONG the numerous advantages promised by a well constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction.
Now, the analyst my write something like:
In that excerpt, Madison overemphasizes the threat of faction to such a degree that we might wonder whether he was trying to frighten his readers into favoring the ratification of the Constitution. The fact is, a Union can subsist in good health without a strong centralizing force for Union; and faction may in some cases be evidence of a healthy attitude toward cultural diversity.
Importantly, the analyst takes a rhetorical position that assumes his or her own intellectual superiority over that of Madison. The analyst is not concerned with demonstrating his or her own understanding--and he assumes that his readers have a basic and thorough understanding of the historical context, the political situation, and Madison's terminology. The expositor, on the other hand, might write:
In that excerpt, Madison laid out his primary claim--that a strong Union is the necessary and wise antidote to the social problems collectively dubbed "faction." Madison, like many of his contemporaries, feared that the many states and micro-cultures that were originally united by anti-crown sentiments, would (in the absence of a shared enemy) go separate ways. There are other advantages, he suggests, associated with a strongly united central government, but if there were no threat of faction, his support for a "well-constructed Union" might be less intense.
In the exposition, the writer takes a rhetorical position that is just-barely co-equal with Madison, and he assumes that his readers are in the process of trying to figure out what's going on in Madison's essay. He does not assume understanding, or shared terminology, and forgoes "criticism" altogether. He may be accused of bias only by default (a Howard Zinn type might say that, in not objecting, he was tacitly consenting to Madison's ideological position).

We've gone separate paths for a while. Let's return to the parlor now to explain, carefully and in the spirit of mutual regard, what we've discovered. Patiently explain to me what you've learned, and be patient with my questions; I may be trying to learn in your footsteps. Let's gain understanding before we set off on our independent critical projects.

2.27.2010

And Another...

Escaping the Trash Bin

I got a new computer, so I'm dumping a lot of old useless stuff. Here's a video from last summer that I decided against posting then -- but I don't want to lose it altogether. Not my best work, but tolerably interesting, if you'll kindly disregard the characteristically whiny tone.

Housekeeping

Here's a link to an interesting New York Times article called "Depression's Upside." It's not in favor of depression or anything, but I like that the article considers the possibility that depression is a natural fact rather than simply haunting and inexplicable terror that swoops down and strikes the unfortunate. Or, well, read the article. Here's one interesting excerpt:
The persistence of this affliction — and the fact that it seemed to be heritable — posed a serious challenge to Darwin’s new evolutionary theory. If depression was a disorder, then evolution had made a tragic mistake, allowing an illness that impedes reproduction — it leads people to stop having sex and consider suicide — to spread throughout the population. For some unknown reason, the modern human mind is tilted toward sadness and, as we’ve now come to think, needs drugs to rescue itself.

The alternative, of course, is that depression has a secret purpose and our medical interventions are making a bad situation even worse. Like a fever that helps the immune system fight off infection — increased body temperature sends white blood cells into overdrive — depression might be an unpleasant yet adaptive response to affliction. Maybe Darwin was right. We suffer — we suffer terribly — but we don’t suffer in vain.
And then later:
Consider a 2005 paper led by Steven Hollon, a psychologist at Vanderbilt University: he found that people on antidepressants had a 76 percent chance of relapse within a year when the drugs were discontinued. In contrast, patients given a form of cognitive talk therapy had a relapse rate of 31 percent. And Hollon’s data aren’t unusual: several studies found that patients treated with medication were approximately twice as likely to relapse as patients treated with cognitive behavior therapy. “The high relapse rate suggests that the drugs aren’t really solving anything,” Thomson says. “In fact, they seem to be interfering with the solution, so that patients are discouraged from dealing with their problems. We end up having to keep people on the drugs forever. It was as if these people have a bodily infection, and modern psychiatry is just treating their fever.”
ALSO: Here's the conclusion to yesterday's Sufi "teaching story," for the curious:
The other two were furious:

"And why didn't you call us before making such a personal decision?"

"How could I? You were both so far away, finding masters and having such holy visions! Yesterday we discussed the importance of putting into practice that which we learn on a spiritual plane. In my case, God acted quickly, and had me awake dying of hunger!"

2.25.2010

Who Can Teach Wisdom.

I've gathered research for a paper I'm about to start on literature as a sort of teaching tool for stubborn pupils. I have probably 8 years to go before I figure out how to phrase it all. The following is just an informal effort to figure out a little bit about how we react to literature. It's an old Sufi "teaching story." I'm going to give you the set-up, but withhold the end until tomorrow. If you read this stuff before then, please leave a comment anticipating the ending. (...and don't go googling it. I'm not giving out glitter-stickers here.)

The story:
As three travelers crossed the mountains of the Himalaya, they discussed the importance of putting into practice everything they had learned on a spiritual plane. They we so engrossed in their conversation that it was only late at night that they realized that all they had with them was a piece of bread.

They decided not to discuss who deserved to eat it; since they were pious men, they left the decision in the hands of the gods. They prayed that, during the night, a superior spirit should indicate who should receive the food.

The following morning, the three men rose together at sunrise.

"This is my dream," said the first traveler. "I was taken to places I had never visited before, and enjoyed the sort of peace and harmony I have sought in vain during my entire life on earth. In the midst of this paradise, a wise man with a long beard said to me: "you are my chosen one, you never sought pleasure, always renounced all things. And, in order to prove my allegiance to you, I should like you to try a piece of bread."

"That's very strange," said the second traveler. "For in my dream, I saw my past of sanctity and my future as a master. As I gazed at that which is to come, I found a man of great wisdom, saying: "You are in greater need of food than your friends, for you shall have to lead many people, and will require strength and energy."

Then the third traveler said:

"In my dream I saw nothing, went nowhere, and found no wise men. However, at a certain hour during the night, I suddenly woke up. And I ate the bread."
So... how will it end? How should it end?

2.24.2010

What Stops the Brain? From Whence? At Whose Behest?

Man, this is so awesome that I'm showing it again:



But I guess it's also good fodder for parody:


2.23.2010

See Also...

I almost linked to yesterday's AWESOME op-ed by Stanley Fish ("Are There Secular Reasons?") as a part of my brilliant pamphlet below on Union and Faction, but it deserves its own space. Very relevant! [Still, if you have to choose, read only my post below!]

Against Faction


Anybody older than 25 should be able to understand that the attraction to monotheism or polytheism is very much a corresponding attraction to notions of Unity or Plurality/"Diversity". This way of thinking is pretty much assumed in American literature circles, where deep familiarity with the founders' fear of "faction" and emphasis on Union (against the anti-Federalists) is expected alongside an awareness of Poe's emphasis on aesthetic unity (see Eureka) and the rise of Unitarianism in New England. The Greeks knew this philosophical problem as the question of "The One and the Many," starting with Heraclitus (Many) and Parmenides (One). The inconsistencies in contemporary thinking (Catholics who oppose imperialism, materialists who appeal to Justice as if it's self-evident, etc.) mark a high point in the long transition phase that we are witnessing as Western culture becomes polytheistic. See the comments in yesterday's post. [I appreciate Sophist_Monster's candid association with polytheism.]

This idea is at least as old as William James, and I find strong traces of it in Herman Melville. Nevertheless, a vast majority of Americans call themselves monotheists. I see parallels there between today's self-described monotheists-in-America and the moments just before and during Jesus' teaching where Jews were apparently turning to false idols:
Consider the "carved images" of the Old Testament. I think most of us tend to scratch our heads when confronted with the commandment about not having other gods before Me. What's so great about a wooden cut-out of Mithras, we ask? But the carved images are what make America go 'round. Ours are fancier: iPods, cool purses, flashy belt-buckles, whatever. But "our" values are dispersed in these. Seen in this light, Americans have been polytheists almost since the beginning.

Now, I'm not arguing (yet) that monotheistic culture is better than polytheistic culture, but (watch this!) I am arguing that "culture" is a singular noun. A polytheistic culture is really a set of polytheistic cultures. And considered from the vantage point of the One/Many problem, this leads us to acknowledge that a Union is only possible if it is supported by a shared culture. (Consider what, if not its shared culture, has allowed Jewishness to survive for so long as a unified whole.)

So as the United States produces scientists who explore the possibilities of "multiverses" (as opposed to The Universe), and as public schools doggedly encourage diversity, my argument is that the center will not hold. Still--still!--I am not arguing that monotheistic culture is better (or more philosophically "true") than a set of polytheistic cultures. I am only following the logic through. A polytheistic "culture," which emphasizes different values and affirms the notion that justice is contingent, and case-based, cannot remain a single culture. And we see this all over the place in America, from the tax-credits given to homeowners but not renters, to married couples but not singles, to people with children but not people without children, etc.

Here's an excerpt from a book published in 2005 called E Pluribus Unum, by W.C. Harris:
Read together, Moby-Dick and Billy Budd emphatically demonstrate the progress Melville made in producing his own solution to the hard problem of unity. It is my contention that Moby-Dick represents one of Melville's stronger movements toward, and Billy Budd, his most successful realization of, the narrative equivalent of pluris, his most fully articulated theorization of manyness, decenteredness, and incompleteness as viable bases for textual, individual, and social identities that are not grounded in the more limiting categories of uniformity, integration, and totality.
Read that twice (!), because a careful look reveals that Harris himself overwhelmingly favors polytheism. Indeed, it is because Harris favors polytheism that he regards Billy Budd as a superior creation to Moby-Dick. So I accept his analysis, but not his evaluation, of Melville's two works. Harris' language gets even more particular:
The required strategy… is to dislodge unity altogether as the valorized term of identity, the default category for social formation. It is with Billy Budd… that Melville succeeds where previously he had failed.

[And then:]

Melville experiments… with variety-based kinds of unity (as in the “Isolatoes federated along one keel [but]… remains committed to unity in its most encompassing form.
Notice Harris' language of "failure." Failed at what? Well, to become a polytheist (Melville follows Ahab's "monomania" through to its end in Moby-Dick). Harris is a genius for seeing this much, but I disagree with his final evaluation of Melville's literary productions. I value Moby-Dick much more highly because it is much nearer to the white-hot center of this problem of the Many&One, though it does finally decide on Oneness. And look at the results:
Moby-Dick: The Many (the crew) perish; the One (Ishmael) survives
Billy-Budd: The One (Billy) perishes; the Many (the crew) survives
It is certainly true that "pragmatically," Billy Budd seems to get the better outcome--fewer lives are lost. But Melville is a symbolist, and the One is not just the individual character of Ishmael or Billy. Rather, the One is that shared sense of identity and culture that is necessary to keep a Union united.

Of Moby-Dick, Harris wrote,
…the text attempts to produce [cosmological and psychological] unities but finally casts down the crude, partial copies it is able to make (like the cetological system), regarding them as the ineffective detritus of a world whose loss of its transcendent ground (God, Union) has produced pluralism to the point of chaos.
And it is in this assessment that we can see Melville as a prophet of the apocalypse (Civil War). The founders of America understood the danger of faction and disunion. It is an absolute fact that this country's Constitution was written precisely to protect against faction (read even the first sentence of Federalist No. 10). For better or worse, we are living in a time during which very few Americans are as wary of faction as Hamilton and Madison were. To put it more directly: I won't pretend to judge whether it's better that America remains one nation or not, but we are on a path to take it toward "not."

Finally, a more general/theoretical point: it seems to me that we have a distinction between "Philosophers," who aim at the One, and "Sophists," who revel in the Many. There is no contradiction for the Philosopher, who in choosing Oneness must thereby refuse the Many. But there is a significant contradiction at the heart of Sophistry, that implies that a Sophist, embracing the Many, must also [absurdly] embrace the One, else he has turned his "Many" into a species of One itself.

But then (I'm sure the Sophist will reply), what of contradiction?

2.22.2010

Love it...

2.21.2010

Opportunity for Optimism

This chart shows visits to my blog last week. I must be doing something right -- who else could write so much and still only attract so elite an audience?

[Note: the spike on last Monday is likely the result of the synergy that happened briefly as I welcomed Pure_Sophist_Monster to the blogroll.]

Passing as Passing

Touré is apparently a novelist (but you know him from MSNBC interviews), who is currently writing a book on post-blackness in America. His essay in today's New York Times, which passes as a review of a new edition of Ralph Ellison's Juneteenth, ends on what he thinks is a sharp question:
Why aren’t more white people trying to pass as black?
I have a witty answer: "You mean like this guy...


?"

2.19.2010

Sexuality and Figure Skating

I had written a post all about gay men in figure skating, and wondered what comes first, the sexuality or the skating. But I wasn't very comfortable with how it "sounded," so I took it down. I just don't know enough about how many of these figure skating men are "out" to comment on it.



So let's be hypothetical instead. A disproportionate number of players in the NBA are black. Rather than explaining that the good-ol' fashioned racist way, which emphasized physical abilities inherited from surviving the middle passage (or some nonsense), we now generally agree that 78% of NBA players are black because basketball is a big part of youth black culture. It's an important part of socialization in much of black culture, blah blah blah, so that explains that. The same goes for why 90% of professional golfers (I'm making these numbers up) are white, right?--it's a part of white culture; it's not that white people are genetically predisposed to the golf swing.

But IF (!) there is a disproportionate number of gay men in Olympic figure skating, how do we explain that? Most of the Olympians must've started skating long before they were comfortably (or uncomfortably) influenced by gay culture. Whereas black men are habituated within black culture from the time they can walk, gay men are seldom raised "within" gay culture--most of their parents are not conversant with gay culture. So what's going on here, hypothetically?

What explains it?

2.18.2010

Placeholders

Is it possible to write a good and moving scene with "Character A," "Character B," "Character C," and so on, where it would be possible to "plug-in" any kind of person into those positions? Could I write good a scene for A, B, and C, and then draw from a hat whether character A was to be black, white, Latino, or other? Or is that impossible?

If it is possible, is it possible to write a whole book that way?

Informal Poll -- With a Follow-Up to Follow

Yes or No: Is it immoral to litter?

Ummmm... Uh... Well...

Looks like we're collectively getting closer to the moment when it'll no longer be possible to leave "black culture" and "white culture" undefined. I was never particularly offended by Carlton Banks' impression of me, or by Dave Chappelle's, but I'm not surprised that some black people were offended by the "Ghetto themed party" at UCSD this weekend. But for the record, I don't see how administrators of the university could "discipline" anyone for participating.

2.17.2010

Recovering the "Uni" in University

A recent article (thanks, Monica) has inspired me with a "that'll never-happen," but perfectly reasonable, vision of an alternative kind of education.

In the future I see, some universities will genuinely be marketplaces of ideas. You will see Christian departments, and Biology departments, and Buddhist departments, and Astrology departments. Students will be required to take general-education courses in each of those departments. So 100-level courses will be theoretical, not experiential. In those classes, professors will offer "previews" of what kinds of experiences students will get in upper-level courses.
BIOLOGY 110: Students will hear a great deal about the scientific method, and will hear about Charles Darwin and see some Powerpoint presentations showing statistics gathered from fruit-fly breeding experiments. Students will not do any biology.

BUDDHISM 108: Students will gain familiarity with the major concepts of Buddhism, including a good foundation in the terminology. Students may listen to an interview with a Buddhist, or read personal narratives written by Buddhists, etc. Students will not do any Buddhism.
After completing their general education requirements, students will choose a path. Some will go off to be scientists, thinking never again of that wishy-washy stuff about "souls" and "self" and so on. Others will go do Zen meditation in 300 and 400 level courses, actively trying to see through what they are discovering to be the illusions taught by other departments.

Anything short of this model, and what we have are simply "schools," and not UNI-versities.

2.16.2010

Synchronicity: What I've Been Sayin' Lately.

I know ya'll can't listen to every bit of media I recommend, but I found an interview/podcast (look for #065) that made me feel really confident and comfortable about my career and my "calling" and the possibility that there will be more and more opportunities to do/say what I want to do/say within the academy.

Check it out. The guy who is being interviewed is a professor of English at Wake Forest.

AND, in keeping with the preternatural Gnostic theme of this blog and that podcast, the professor being interviewed just happens (what!?) to mention Kay Redfield Jamison's book, Touched with Fire, that I cited yesterday. Weird.

I hope to get a chance to introduce myself to Professor Wilson soon, as Wake Forest isn't very far from my own humble North Carolina Baptist University. In this interview, Wilson ties together just about all of my favorite interests: psychology, melancholy, literature, politics, Jesus, etc. -- and I catch about 98% of his drift.

So get excited, will you? Here we have a clear articulation of Casey-philosophy.

News

A recent CBS/New York Times poll (see page 7 of 22) shows that 6% (SIX PERCENT!) of Americans believe that Obama's $787 billion stimulus package has created jobs.

I'm pretty sure if you add up the number of liberal arts college professors you get about six percent of Americans...

Now I know that there is no necessary relationship between "belief" and reality, but... man. Six percent is LOW.

2.15.2010

A Tentative Call for a Probationary Re-Introduction of Discipline into (the) Human Psycho-Spiritual Experience(s)

One of the interesting things Alan Watts said about LSD (listen below) was that LSD does provide the transcendental/mystical experience promised by the mystical traditions of all religions. But LSD is more dangerous, according to Watts, because the mystical traditions all package their "gift" within a discipline.

So when a person says the Jesus prayer, or does Kundalini Yoga, they are given paths to a higher consciousness. But when/if that experience comes, those who have practiced the discipline will be prepared to "interpret" their experience, whereas those who have taken LSD may be altogether blown out of the water. So when a practitioner of Yoga has the same experience of higher consciousness that a Christian mystic might have, the Yoga person will talk about his third-eye opening, while the Christian may speak of salvation or Jesus. The person on LSD, having no framework of expectation, may lose it and start talking about alien abduction or spinning some similarly socially-unacceptable narrative.

And I think Watts is onto something. I'm in the middle of a dialog with a trusted friend about the matter of psychological diagnosis and prescription meds, etc. In his view (correct me if I'm wrong, friend!), a psychological disorder like "Manic Depression" may not be understood as effectively in spiritual terms as it is in psychology. Manic Depression (the artist formerly known as "bipolar disorder") is a very specific diagnosis, with subdiagnoses available:
But the argument I'm interested in has involved wondering what kinds of effects (in the patient) are brought on by the expectations associated with these clinical/psychological terms.

Listen to the first two paragraphs of Jonathan Edwards' personal narrative:
I had a variety of concerns and exercises about my soul from my childhood; but had two more remarkable seasons of awakening, before I met with that change by which I was brought to those new dispositions, and that new sense of things, that I have since had. The first time was when I was a boy, some years before I went to college, at a time of remarkable awakening in my father's congregation. I was then very much affected for many months, and concerned about the things of religion, and my soul's salvation; and was abundant in duties. I used to pray five times a day in secret, and to spend much time in religious talk with other boys; and used to meet with them to pray together. I experienced I know not what kind of delight in religion. My mind was much engaged in it, and had much self righteous pleasure; and it was my delight to abound in religious duties. I with some of my schoolmates joined together, and built a booth in a swamp, in a very retired spot, for a place of prayer. And besides, I had particular secret places of my own in the woods, where I used to retire by myself; and was from time to time much affected. My affections seemed to be lively and easily moved, and I seemed to be in my element when engaged in religious duties. And I am ready to think, many are deceived with such affections, and such a kind of delight as I then had in religion, and mistake it for grace.

But in process of time, my convictions and affections wore off; and I entirely lost all those affections and delights and left off secret prayer, at least as to any constant performance of it; and returned like a dog to his vomit, and went on in the ways of sin. Indeed I was at times very uneasy, especially towards the latter part of my time at college; when it pleased God, to seize me with a pleurisy; in which he brought me nigh to the grave, and shook me over the pit of hell. And yet, it was not long after my recovery, before I fell again into my old ways of sin. But God would not suffer me to go on with any quietness; I had great and violent inward struggles, till, after many conflicts with wicked inclinations, repeated resolutions, and bonds that I laid myself under by a kind of vows to God.
Now, obviously, we may disagree in our diagnoses here, but it's not unprecedented to diagnose historical figures in contemporary psychological terms (see Kay Redfield Jamison on Herman Melville's manic depression in Touched with Fire). I see pretty clearly that Edwards is rolling back and forth between what a contemporary psychologist might call "delusions of grandeur" and a kind of discouragement recognizable as depression. And he does it over and over again throughout his autobiographical narrative. But because he had been reared in the discipline of Calvinism, he interpreted his own symptoms in Christian mythological terms.

Finally: I am not arguing (at least not now) that Christianity handled this mental/spiritual phenomenon better than psychiatry currently does. In fact, I suspect that contemporary psychiatry does better than contemporary Christianity with a problem like this--with one caveat. Psychological terminology generally diagnoses disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder as chronic, essentially "incurable" (though treatable), disorders. The Christian interpretation (and the Buddhist, Hindu, Sufi, etc.) allows for the possibility of "rebirth."

So what I'd like to see is a comparative analysis of sufferers of the same disorder (say manic-depression) who are "primed" in different frameworks. How does a Kentucky-mountains Pentecostal church handle a person with manic-depression, and does that person do better than a person who is diagnosed by a psychiatrist? Acutely? In the long-term?

I'm planning a follow-up post based on Kay Jamison on Herman Melville's bipolar disorder. Stay tuned. Sayeth Melville:
"...he who has never felt, momentarily, what madness is has but a mouthful of brains."

A Friendly Welcome, with some Nuance

The conception of a new blog (a friend's) gives cause to re-publish an important definition/distinction that seems to be lost on those who self-identify as "sophists" or "rhetoricians." These sophists love to argue against Plato, and in particular against what they see as Plato's mythico-magical "transcendental standard of truth." They always say, "Isn't that dumb?--what about subjectivity?"

So sophistry flourishes always in opposition, but never in the primary place. They need to "frame" themselves as outsiders.

My sophist friend Wrangler quotes John Locke then writes of his own blog's position:
"Be sure not to let your son be bred up in the art and formality of disputing, either practicing it himself, or admiring it in others; unless, instead of an able man, you desire to have him an insignificant wrangler, opiniator in discourse, and priding himself in contradicting others; or which is worse, questioning everything, and thinking there is no such thing as truth to be sought, but only victory in disputing."
In an effort to distance myself from Locke's notion of enlightenment, I celebrate mere wrangling, and relish my insignificance. Play the world away.
And my new-blogging friend, Pure Sophist Monster, writes of his:
The historian of rhetoric Susan Jarrett says that the sophists have historically been seen as "arch-deceptors, enemies of Truth, manipulators of language" (xi Rereading the Sophists). Viewed less pejoratively (and more productively), however, we can say that the sophists were committed to an understanding of truth and values as (culturally and situationally) contingent, and that they were invested in language as means of navigating these contingencies.
So the sophists oppose a notion of truth that is transcendent and uncontingent with one that is culturally and situationally contingent. But regardless of what Plato said, I don't think that the sophists are opposing the important point.

Truth is like this: either the planet is warming because of CO2 emissions, or it's not. No amount of "framing" can undo that point. Now, we may not have perfect knowledge of the causes, and we may even disagree about whether the supposed warming is a problem (certainly Russia would be less averse to the ridiculous specter of rising sea levels than New Orleans would be). But there is a Truth here, uncontingent, un-cultural, un-situational.

So leaving Plato aside, my renewed critique of sophistry is that it proposes to speak on all issues with authority, without bothering about gaining expertise in any particular issue.

2.14.2010

On Pain as a Rite of Passage

One of Robert Frost's memorable sayings: "The way out is through."

I've been thinking about this a good deal lately, observing as my wife decides about her "birthing plan." It's our general impression that hospitals (and presumably, physicians) have gone a little too far with regard to pushing anesthetic. I've heard more than one person say, "Hey--we can make the pain go away; so why should you feel any?" But there are a number of recent books like this one, Birthing from Within, that suggest or imply that dulling or removing the pain somehow diminishes a near-universal human experience that has long been a kind of rite-of-passage for women. In this view, getting an epidural would be like refusing to show up for the college freshmen hazing ritual that your baseball team invites you to.

But lest anyone think I'm not thinking carefully about this--or worry that I'm sounding judgmental--let me say very explicitly: I'm not qualified to make the case laid out in the book cited above. And I get really nervous about getting a cavity filled at the dentist; so I can definitely understand a woman's choice to avoid the pain. And, I think my freshman baseball hazing night was one of the dumbest nights of my life.

But, so, here are two paths: one with a sign that reads, "The way out is through," and another that says, "The way out is anesthetic."

Interestingly, I have a cousin who is an anesthesiologist. She's currently 8 months pregnant with twins. When I asked her if she was getting "the meds," she said, "Given my career choice, I think it would be in bad form for me not to get an epidural."

How should a person make this decision? Especially with a first child? Giving birth seems one of those fundamentally incommunicable experiences--you've either done it or you haven't.

Is it crazy to choose pain when unfeeling is a possibility? Or is the vague promise of "spiritual growth" a reasonable motivation to choose pain?

2.13.2010

You're It!

I just found an awesome podcast featuring a talk by Alan Watts. It's one of Watts' few talks that remains without copyright. Nominally, it's about LSD. But that's not the interesting part. If you have an hour, learn about (or re-learn about) the secret at the heart of all cultures.


(Note: give him ten minutes to work up to his thesis)

P.S. -- 56 minutes in Watts talks about "psychotherapy, whether it's Jungian or Freudian," in ways that are easily shifted to be about psychiatry. Is it true that psychiatrists are the gatekeepers? Doing anything possible to make sure that the masses don't learn this secret? Or do I need a heavy dose of Risperdal?

2.12.2010

E Pluribus, uh... Pluribus?

Read a really interesting article (10 pages!) in the NY Times today about the Texas state curriculum and what kinds of history should appear in public school curricula.

The conversations this board had recently remind me of what I imagine took place at the Council of Nicaea: I'm always telling my students that "America" is redefined every generation, and I ask them at the end of each semester in my literature classes to recommend three "cuts" and three "keepers" from our reading list. It's all very high-stakes, though it may not seem so. Thirty-five years ago you could scarcely have found an anthology of American literature that includes what all of them now include: excerpts and selections from the Iroquois and Pima creation stories, Mary Rowlandson's narrative, Sarah Kemble Knight's narrative, Olaudah Equiano's narrative, Harriet Jacobs' narrative.

In a certain sense, I do think it's absurd to try to teach students about America's early days without referring to the Christian tradition. On the other hand, I'd be skeptical about the ability of typical high school teachers to do that with the kind of nuance it requires (indeed, I have little faith that most college professors tread carefully enough with regard to that topic).

The article quotes a Christian activist named Cynthia Dunbar: "The philosophy of the classroom in one generation will be the philosophy of the government in the next." I couldn't have said it better myself.

Anyway, lots of interesting stuff in the article.

2.11.2010

What Modern English Is

Mary Webster has spent years translating The Federalist Papers into "Modern English." Certainly a smart-aleck might ask her, "...into Modern English from what?"

But I've been saying for years that Shakespeare is badly in need of translation, despite the orthodox linguistic categorization of Shakespeare's work as "Modern English" (ridiculous from a lay perspective, that is). I have a copy of my great great grandpa's Complete Shakespeare--he signed it Olaf Anidersen. Legend has it that it was his only book. He asked the people at Ellis Island circa 1906 how to learn the language: buy a complete Shakespeare, they told him.

Anyway, I teach The Federalist Papers every semester in a gen.-ed. literature class to mostly sophomores. I get the impression that very few of them can understand it. Are they getting dumber, or is it possible that Mary Webster's project will make the issues buried beneath the aging prose more accessible to contemporary readers? What would be lost?

Here's a bit of prose, a single sentence, from Federalist No. 1, by Alexander Hamilton:
Among the most formidable of the obstacles which the new Constitution will have to encounter may readily be distinguished the obvious interest of a certain class of men in every state to resist all changes which may hazard a diminution of the power, emolument and consequence of the offices they hold under the state establishments--and the perverted ambition of another class of men, who will either hope to aggrandize themselves by the confusions of their country, or will flatter themselves with fairer prospects of elevation from the subdivision of the empire into several partial confederacies, than from its union under one government.
Tomorrow, I'm going to have my sophomores translate that into "Modern English." I'll post a few of their efforts here as an update.

But first, here's Mary Webster's translated version of the sentence quoted above:
Many politicians will oppose the new Constitution. Some politicians are afraid that the Constitution will decrease the power and benefits of their current State offices. Others think that they can have more power if the country is in turmoil or is broken up into several small countries.
Any thoughts? My initial reaction is to seriously question Webster's translation from Hamilton's "a certain class of men" to "politicians." I don't think Hamilton was thinking so narrowly: certainly a businessman/slaveowner from South Carolina may have had reason to oppose the Constitution for financial reasons.

***

UPDATE: Interesting results. I gave students definitions to the more obscure vocabulary. At first, they came up with stuff like this:
Amongst the dreaded task the new Constitution will have to face which may divide certain people in every state to resist all changes which may expose the act of power, profit, and distinction of the offices they hold under the state establishments--and the misguided ambition of another class of men, who will either hope to esteem themselves by the confusion of their country, or will flatter themselves with ample sucess of dignity or from the seperation of the empire into several partial alliances, than from its union under one government.
But after I made them read that kind of translation aloud, they realized they hadn't done anything but substitute words for words. So then I said, "Look, pretend you've gotta go back to the dorm and tell your roommate about this idea; what will you say?"

Then I got:
The Constitution will divide the people, in every state, into people who either support it because they want more success, or disaprove it because they are afraid of change.
Or this:
Some people want seperation of the constitution while other do not.
But then I had to try to convince them that too much was lost in that kind of translation. Fun effort at teaching, but I'm discouraged at how impossible it is to get 20-year olds to discuss the ideas that are presented in The Federalist Papers. Hamilton was only 32 when he wrote the damn things.

Funny.

More news (this time funny) concerning the outright failure of a popular antidepressant: man arrested for bashing 29 televisions in a Wal-mart with a baseball bat. Ha! What a scene that must've been. Link here.

2.10.2010

Provocative Excerpt

From chapter 79 of Moby-Dick:
Physiognomy, like every other human science, is but a passing fable. If then, Sir William Jones, who read in thirty languages, could not read the simplest peasant's face in its profounder and more subtle meanings, how may unlettered Ishmael hope to read the awful Chaldee of the Sperm Whale's brow? I but put that brow before you. Read it if you can.

2.09.2010

Not Regarding Death

Last night at 3-something a.m., I woke up with a clear sense of what it means to be mortal. Probably the thought was spurred by turning 32-years old yesterday. It felt like I had the material in my head for a truly profound blog post about death and living with the knowledge of death. All I remember is that the thought consisted of a kind of astonishment--focusing especially on the matter that I was going to die. But then my alarm clock went off and I was freezing, so I practically sprinted to a warm shower. Then I had to teach a class. Then I went to a "faculty-forum" luncheon, and now, somehow, I can't remember any of the content that I saw so clearly last night. Funny, isn't it? Today, all I can do is quote Walt Whitman's under-appreciated line:
Death, death, death, death, death.
What could anyone add? I mean I've read Socrates' Apology, and been momentarily persuaded. I've read all kinds of stuff about death--but it's all worthless at 3 a.m. Indeed, "fear" isn't the primary way I relate to the idea of death. It's more like wonder. Somebody say something profound about death. I dare you.

2.08.2010

Antidepressants work!--(but don't ask how!)

Did you see Newsweek's cover this week at your local grocery store?

Yes, I know, I know... let's take the middle path and approach this subject with serious and "relatively objective" eyes. Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater, etc. But Sharon Begley's article appearing in Newsweek, lay-person journalism though it is, is pretty damning. What I find most ripe and fascinating about this conversation is the very real possibility that we've basically been using mustard seeds for a generation to "treat" sadness... and often, they worked! They worked as long as we expected them to work. With articles like Belgey's, expect to see these magic pills working even less effectively.

Confidence, man! I've heard that aloe, burdock, coconut, and sandalwood are all possible remedies for depression. But don't go reading the article. Trust me. Go buy a sandalwood necklace and drink coconut milk for breakfast every morning: I can virtually guarantee your recovery.

Yes, and I've got one more secret I'll divulge if you send me $5.00. It's absolutely a fool-proof way of curing depression.

No really: Begley's weird "moral qualm" about blowing the whistle on antidepressants as "expensive tic-tacs" is incomprehensible to me (ALERT: very relevant Melville link!). If it is true that these pills were placebos, and that placebos work as long as nobody knows they're placebos--and if it is true even that doctors are brilliant con-men of the psyche, Gnostically withholding the Truth because of a benevolent decision to keep their healing patients healingly illusioned--even if all of that is true, then it's time for some new doctors, and time for some new placebos. Obviously, you can't get away with saying, "Here's a new placebo." So you keep inventing new pills with increasingly XYZ-ish names... but that's not working anymore. Give us something else! We're still depressed! We know you're conning us. Now start hiding your con better. Invent a new one. If you don't, psychiatry, we'll find better shamans. Begley wrote of this supposed "moral dilemma":
In any year, an estimated 13.1 million to 14.2 million American adults suffer from clinical depression. At least 32 million will have the disease at some point in their life. Many of the 57 percent who receive treatment (the rest do not) are helped by medication. For that benefit to continue, they need to believe in their pills.
Really? They need to believe in fake pills? I think. there are. [cheaper] alternatives.

2.04.2010

Sola Fide!, or Thou must Decide

Lately, in the classroom, I've been dealing with a bunch of stuff that really fascinates me. Here's an effort to summarize the central question: what is the source of authority in voices or texts that we consider to be authoritative? Now, notice: this is not the question of what do we consider to be authoritative--but where we tell ourselves that authority comes from.

Because see, the reality is, very few individuals are willing to say something like this: I believe in the teachings of Jesus (or of John Maynard Keynes, for that matter) because I am an authoritative judge of teachings. Instead, in defending those things we think of as authoritative, we appeal to external evidence. We try to make Jesus or Keynes the authority, we try to move ourselves out of the way.

I'm mired in early American literature, so the question is most pronounced with regard to the teachings of Jesus. The question is, why is the sermon on the mount authoritative? And keep in mind, you're being stupid if you just shrug right now and say, "Well I don't think Jesus' teachings are authoritative," because that's not what I'm asking.

So here are some various thoughts I've culled together out of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries:

According to Philip Gura's really good recent book, American Transcendentalism, around 1836, a guy named Theodore Parker (a unitarian minister/scholar) "sought to answer this question: 'Do men believe in Christianity SOLELY on the ground of miracles?" Parker, not incidentally, believed that men should not believe by reason of the miracles: "I need no miracle to convince me that the sun shines... nor of the divinity of Jesus and his doctrines" (qtd. in Gura).

Jonathan Edwards (of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" fame) framed the question differently, but again in terms of Jesus' authority. In an awesome sermon/essay called "A Divine and Supernatural Light," Edwards begins with a text from Matthew 16:17: "And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona; for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven." Edwards riffs on this theme to argue, anticipating Parker, that the teachings of Jesus are intrinsically authoritative. That is, we must recognize them immediately, and without reference to history, as "divine."

To bring this question to life for my students, I often ask, "What would happen if all we had was a transcript of what Jesus said at the sermon on the mount?" Almost universally, the conclude that his teachings would be far less authoritative if they were not accompanied by his life-narrative, including his miracles. To make sure they understand what they are saying, I show them two statements, the first from Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas, the second from Whitman's "Song of Myself":
1. I am the light that is over all things. I am all: from me all came forth, and to me all attained. Split a piece of wood; I am there.

2. I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
Here the students become firmly committed to the view that the narrative is necessary. They say, "Without his miracles and his resurrection, Jesus would just be another wise teacher" (my emphasis).

But later in the essay, Edwards makes a s-weeeet move that I think seriously unsettles any of my students who are still paying attention here. He says, summarizing Luke 12:56-57, "Christ condemns the Jews, that they did not know that He was the Messiah, and that His doctrine was true, from an inward distinguishing taste and relish of what was divine." Then further on, paraphrasing Jesus' reproach of the Jews, Edwards continues, "Why have ye not that savor of the things of God, by which you may see the distinguishing glory, and evident divinity of me and my doctrine?"

In that part of the story, Jesus hasn't yet died and been resurrected -- so if knowing by a person's narrative, by "extrinsic signs," is a good way to recognize authoritative speech, Jesus shouldn't have blamed the Jews for not recognizing him.

So now the question looks like this: How would you recognize the divinity of Jesus? And the answer my students give (by his miracles) is essentially ineffective--is not an option. He will not glide in wearing a glowing white robe, 9 feet tall, and calling you "my child." He may not even have long hair, I tell them... or a beard... or a penis. I usually phrase that last part carefully, but I think I'm doing a fair interpretation of Edwards' and Parker's views. And of course, Emerson would say the same. I conclude by reading them Jesus own words:
"Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment." (John 7:24)
But for some reason, despite clear and convincing arguments about this, my students cannot cease to see the Bible itself as authoritative. Or the miracles. Or their church, or their ministers, or their parents. But in my view, these are the "false idols" warned against from the beginning of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Even the Word is not the highest authority, because there is never a situation where someone is not reading the Word. There is always an interpreter. To defer to a minister or scholar is to give-over to an obvious extrinsic evidence, is to put your faith in the minister and not in G-d. But even in reading the Bible, or our favorite book of French criticism, or our favorite political tract, if we forget that it is we who have favorites, who have preferences--if we forget that we are in the judges seat, then, according to Jesus, Jonathan Edwards, Theodore Parker, and R.W. Emerson--then, we are lost. The movement that continues into the contemporary era, popular among Evangelical and Reform Protestants, Sola Scriptura, explicitly opposes this view. The Sola Scriptura crowd places ultimate authority in the Bible, in its words. And I think it is only in understanding clearly and intensely just how wrong the Sola Scriptura crowd is that a person may begin to see the glory in its opposition: the Sola Fide approach.

Can I get a quick linguistic analysis of the word "antinomian," maybe? I suspect that this word, which Wikipedia translates "lawlessness," or "against the law," may also denote or connote something like "against the name," or even "against the doctrine." And the problem here is that most of us think that this means only "the law," as in jaywalking and smoking in restaurants and murder laws. But I think it also means propositional ethical teachings, even if they are not backed by the state. If someone brings ten commandments down from a mountaintop carved in stone, the carvings are not automatically authoritative, and nothing except each witnessing self can make them so. Moses can say "God told me thou shalt not," but thou must decide whether Moses and his teachings are insane, misguided, or authoritative.

So anyway, isn't that rich territory? Give it all up! All of it. Even Jesus, Edwards, Parker, and Emerson--and me, and this persuasive post. Because those are deeply external sources. But when you discover this minority (almost secret) view in yourself, don't be surprised if you are not the first to have tread that ground.

2.02.2010

E-Reading List

"Oh, I read 'em all, you know. I read most of 'em. You know, Katie -- all of the big ones."

A friend asked the other day in an email what websites I visit on a regular (near-daily) basis. I told him I read the ones on my blogroll, and:
And I should add: Facebook & espn.com. That's about all I have time for these days... I remember the wild, wild West days of the internet fondly. When I was 22, I found corners of the internet that are probably by now mostly forgotten.

What do ya'll read regularly? My friend pointed me to The Atlantic, which I'm starting to work into the rotation. What else am I missing?

Tr-th Resurgence Detected in Washington D.C.

Looks like, if he doesn't chump out and betray everything holy, President Obama is going to lead the way in the self-trust revolution! Meet with the Dalai Lama, Mr. President, because it's the Right, True, and Beautiful thing to do. And fuck China.

Beauty & American Exceptionalism

Two apparently unrelated observations:

1) Americans are as obsessed with physical beauty as ever.
2) Americans have begun thinking of the British as authorities again.

When I was growing up, it was stuff like this that gripped my (ahem) "imagination":

Later, as I overcame (or sublimated) my attraction to that relatively pedestrian kind of beauty, I experimented with art-appreciation, an interest in unconventional beauty, and even wondered whether literature could be "beautiful." But I never for a minute effectively stopped longing for beauty.

--Until now!--. Just kidding; I still think Beauty's like the best thing going. Let me get to my point: Americans often think of their own "obsession" with Beauty as a kind of embarrassment. We tell ourselves that we know that it's inside what matters even as we watch Miss America pageants or look at persiankitty.com (what?!). But I'm developing a counterpoint. See I can admit that we Americans are more obsessed with Beauty than almost all the other nations combined. Yes, we photoshop, primp, curl, botox--whatever it takes for Beauty. They don't do that in Bhutan.

But isn't this evidence that American exceptionalism* has never been stronger? To be attracted to Beauty is to know about idealism--is to be an idealist. Of course, the argument could be made that even if what I say is true, a focus on exterior Beauty is a relatively dysfunctional kind of idealism. But still, though we may argue about whether Giselle's body is more beautiful than Beyonce's (that is, though we argue about what the ideal is), we almost never admit, by our actions, that the argument doesn't matter.

Oh, and, Gordon Ramsay, Simon Cowell, and the British guy who dances on So you think you can dance?--what's going on there? I suspect that we've stopped trusting our instincts. We've collectively started wondering whether we know what Beauty (and Tr-th!) looks like. Same thing happening here (in the "Orthodox Movement"), I suspect. But I hope Americans wake up to their special mission again; I hope we recognize that judgment deferred is a loss of not only power, but also of vigor. Trust thyself, America.

*Some contemporary academics would have us feel bad about our exceptionalist attitudes. I disagree with some contemporary academics.

Coherent Idea from the Right

Today I'm proud of Jeb Hensarling for speaking as candidly from the Right as James Clyburn did recently from the Left. Watch Hensarling not even blink, despite Matthews' incredibly annoying, unrhythmic, patronizing interjections--"yeah... okay...." Here's the clip:



So here's what we've got: Republicans offering to balance the budget (they say) by making cuts to entitlement programs, starting with social security. Democrats offering to fix the economy (they say) by increasing federal spending in hopes that that will stimulate new economic expansion--they'll worry about the deficit later. All is restored in the kingdom.

Well lace your gloves up, gentlemen; now we have an interesting fight. I have complaints against both sides, of course. Against Clyburn: please be more specific about how you'll pay for the increase in spending--more borrowing from China? More taxes? Against Hensarling: what moral obligation do I have to pay for the retirement checks of my parents' generation if I'm not going to get the same when I retire?

But my complaints are hardly the point here. The point is, Republicans sound like Republicans finally, and Democrats sound like Democrats. Confucius spoke of the rectification of names. It's long been one of my favorite notions.

2.01.2010

Coherent Idea from the Left

Drudge is linking to this story about Democrat Representative James Clyburn -- as an example of wild socialist ideology or something, because Drudge is a libertarian conservative.

But I actually appreciate Clyburn's candid suggestion. It's straight-up Keynesian economic theory, and I very much appreciate Clyburn's willingness to avoid mincing words. It's true that, in America, Keynesian economics is generally unpopular. But to avoid being anti-populist, the Obama administration should follow in Clyburn's lead: stop trying to spin it in favorable rhetoric. Just say that you think it's appropriate to "spend your way out" of a recession.