8.31.2010

Ode to Jon Sealy

Friend Jon Sealy (2.0) has been telling me that I need to read Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian ever since we expressed our shared love for Moby-Dick to each other for the first time some four or five years ago. I'm only sixty-something pages in, but that's a lot in such a book, so I'm going to follow Sealy's format and say a few words:

What it is:

The nearest thing I've ever read to this isn't Moby-Dick, which the book jacket compares it to, but Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop. So far, it's soaked in the landscape. It's as much about the dirt as it is about the Kid who seems to stand in the place where a focalized protagonist should be. The only other McCarthy I've read is The Road, and it shares a theme: something about how fragile civilization--"our" kind in particular--is.

Why it's Interesting:

What strikes me so far is the bare/starkness of the narration. In this regard, it's almost an antithesis of Moby-Dick. In Blood Meridian, you get frightfully objective description like this, a scene where a bunch of American soldiers (loosely angling toward the Mexican-American War in 1850ish) are attacked by a band of marauding Native Americans:
...Now driving in a wild frieze of headlong horses with eyes walled and teeth cropped and naked riders with clusters of arrows clenched in their jaws and their shields winking in the dust and up the far side of the ruined ranks in a piping of boneflutes and dropping down off the sides of their mounts with one heel hung in the withers strap and their short bows flexing beneath the outstretched necks of the ponies until they had circled the company and cut their ranks in two and then rising up again like funhouse figures, some with nightmare faces painted on their breasts, riding down with the unhorsed Saxons and spearing and clubbing them and leaping from their mounts with knives and running about on the ground with a peculiar bandylegged trot like creatures driven to alien forms of locomotion and stripping the clothes from the dead and seizing them up by the hair and passing their blades about the skulls of the living and the dead alike and snatching aloft the bloody wigs and hacking and chopping at the naked bodies, ripping off limbs, heads, gutting the strange white torsos and bodies, ripping up great handfuls of viscera, genitals, some of the savages so slathered up with gore they might have rolled in it like dogs and some who fell upon the dying and sodomized them with loud cries to their fellows.
Holy Toledo. A sentence like that (yes, that's one sentence!) makes me see what Faulkner was trying to do. Aside from the thrilling images, the deftness of the language, what demands my attention is the absence of any narrative commentary. Nowhere in the first five chapters does the narrative voice descend to level judgment on any of the scenes he reports. Melville could never approach this kind of ruthless perspective. Melville, even in the guise of Ishmael, always offers readers a hand:
Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows - a colorless, all- color of atheism from which we shrink? And when we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues - every stately or lovely emblazoning - the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtile deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colorless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge - pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper; and like wilful travellers in Lapland, who refuse to wear colored and coloring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And of all these things the Albino Whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?
So the Moby-Dick comparison is baffling to me, except insofar as I am catching, in Blood Meridian, an early glimpse of the granduer of McCarthy's book.

Further Reading:

Like I said, Willa Cather's Southwest is comparable for its vividness. Possibly (for descriptive setting) also Carlos Castandeda's A Separate Reality. But the only other book I've read with such a studied narrative restraint is Camus' The Stranger, a book that asks readers to listen to the ravings of a madman ("Mother died today, or maybe it was yesterday...") from the very first page. Well, and maybe Dostoevsky. But that is some serious company. And remember: I'm only on page sixty-something!

Wait, wait, wait... what!?

So I'm reading Stanley Crouch's latest opinion piece about how the Tea Party is racist, and I'm thinking to myself as I read, "Oh, I'm so sure, etc..." and then--seriously out of nowhere--Crouch starts a new paragraph (the 9th of a 12-paragraph piece) like this:
In "The Confidence Man," Herman Melville describes the passengers on a Mississippi steamboat. They are of different ethnic groups, beliefs and religions. But as long as they're careful not to harm one another, they are doing the right thing. This is who we are at our best, like it or not.
And the words "Herman Melville" and "Mississippi" are hyperlinked. Whaaaaow. Weird. Anyway, wait... what? What!?

8.30.2010

Bad Question

I'm teaching John Smith's narrative today in Early American Literature. The students all recognize one part of the story because they saw Disney's Pocahontas as children. Listen to the musical digression from the movie, below:



This whole thing seems so wildly overcooked to me. I can just feel the good-intentioned people at Disney trying to get the message through to children of the next generation: "You must value the idea of a pluralistic society! Don't make this mistake!"

But is there really no other way to imagine a society that isn't "universalist" in nature? The Chinese, for example, have a long history of not exactly embracing outsiders -- but they also, excluding the cases of Tibet and Taiwan, generally don't go meddling around the globe. In other words, China is not a particularly pluralist civilization; yet maybe we don't have to fault them for that? Maybe it's okay to write off others (politically) because they are different? Is it always a fault to take refuge in a society with others who are like you?

8.29.2010

The Structure of Silence

I confess, as I have hinted before: I have thoughts that I wouldn't dare speak in public. Which includes here, on this blog. Stuff about culture and maybe race and identity and ethics and so on. I envy my colleagues who--I can tell--are able to speak their consciences without hesitation. They all agree with each other, and their only problem is tricking undergraduates into thinking like they do (or: "They are convinced they are correct; and they work hard to share this conviction with others.") I say I envy them. I wonder...

I wonder if maybe I've just chosen opinions guaranteed to keep me aloof, to keep me on the outside. In other words, I wonder if my "politics" (loosely conceived) are really just a means to landing in this peculiar social position?

One of the reasons I half-assedly like Glenn Beck is that he stands on the Lincoln Memorial and says things like, "Speak the Truth, people. Let me tell you, the Truth will set you free -- oh, warning: it'll devastate you first; but it will set you free. Speak the Truth." I like that because I don't speak the Truth. I try to get myself off the hook by remaining deeply interested in concepts that are inherently unspeakable (there can be no duty to speak the unspeakable!), but I feel a sting when Glennbeck says what he says.

So why can't I speak what I think? How bad could it be, honestly? I guess pretty bad, it seems to me. The reason is that to express certain opinions to people who clearly hold different values makes finding a common ground with those people impossible. I have an example that might be useful:

With a topic like abortion, a pro-life person who is unreflective may stand on a stump and make the case that abortion is murder. But a more sensitive person who is, nevertheless, pro-life, might not want to speak about the issue at all for fear of worsening the psychological condition of one of his listeners who, in this case, though he doesn't know it, has had an abortion.

The same delicacy may be required in all kinds of circumstances, then: if the cultural position you are angling against will feel your counter-position as a reproach, then--if you are sensitive to the feelings of others--you may choose to bite your tongue.

This strange structure: where the position is so profoundly ethical that it refuses to indict those who hold different values. This group is easily "framed" as a judgmental, standoffish bunch. Because, well, there always is one ass who holds a poster of an aborted fetus and shouts about murder through a megaphone. So then what you have is a whole "side" (pro-choice) willing to impugn the character of what they perceive to be the other side... and another side that may consist of 90% silent non-judgers and 10% insensitive jerks.

Abortion is not my topic here. I'm talking about everything from work ethic to speech patterns to attitudes toward government and neighbors and so on.

I just find this to be an interesting phenomenon -- this is a fascinating structure to me. It may even be that you bite your tongue so as not to offend me. Perhaps you believe I shouldn't be so something, but you know that any repudiation would hurt my feelings, and so the conversation that might've ensued remains unspoken.

So: don't name the case, but: am I alone in noting this duty-to-silence?

---

Case in point: the other day I was in the car driving to lunch with some liberal arts colleagues. A piece came on NPR about the upcoming Glenn Beck event. "I heard one of them saying the other day, 'these are some of the finest people on the planet gathered here.' There's no racial tinge to that claim (inflected with dripping sarcasm)." And then another rejoined, "Yes, I think that's the only explanation for this energy: they keep saying, 'Our country has been taken away from us,' and it seems clear that they are simply motivated by racism. There's no other possible motive, honestly -- I mean, what has been taken away from them?" And another: "Yes, well, look at the demographics: not a black face in the crowd tomorrow, I bet." Then the second one spoke again: "The closest I know to a Tea Partier is my brother in law. He was raised in a situation where he had everything he needed; he's never really worked hard; and he simply doesn't want to see the American Dream extended to people who don't look like him." The first said, "These Libertarians are just unthinking and dogmatic--it's best to just ignore that discourse. I think the Democrats shouldn't pay any attention to it." Then the second speaker continued, a moment later: "The new hire in the history department has very problematic politics. He did his dissertation on Eastern European finance and his economics are practically laissez-faire. I was on the committee, and I voiced serious concerns." "Really?," my other (liberal arts!!!) colleagues lamented: "How does someone get through a serious program and still think like that?"

The closest you know to a tea partier, by the way, is sitting in your back seat, afraid to speak, for realistic fear of losing his job.

8.28.2010

No Word for Blue


Here's a link to a long and (I thought!) interesting article on how and whether language can influence our thought. I know Wishydig advises me not to consult the New York Times for science-writing, but Linguistics isn't really a science anyway... hahaha. ;)

Whatever the case, this article makes me re-regret that I never became fluent in a second language. I feel like my career as a prophet could've really benefited from that advantage.

Still, I remain skeptical when the article says, "As strange as it may sound, our experience of a Chagall painting actually depends to some extent on whether our language has a word for blue."

But okay: I've gotta go focus on C-Span right now. I've been watching the Glenn-Beckcitement for an hour now, and haven't seen a white person on stage: just white people in the crowd, clapping awkwardly to the gospel music booming from the stage.

8.27.2010

Really?

I think it's suspicious that I've heard, dozens of times now, about a floating heap of plastic garbage "twice the size of Texas" somewhere in the Pacific Ocean... but have never seen a photograph.

8.25.2010

Chart Not Including Yesterday's 27% Drop in Existing Home Sales

US Zillow Home Value Index
I'm pretty ready for people in my generation to start waking up to how screwed we're getting. Nobody I know can afford a house, and it's because of the government's efforts to keep housing prices artificially inflated. The government is doing that because they're feeling the most pressure from people who are in homes. But if renters would enter the arena more vocally, that might begin to change.

Another scam: I can't believe that anyone under 50 is in favor of the social security program. I heard yesterday some crazy numbers. Something like if you started working in 1937, that when you retired, it took two years collecting social security to get all of the money back that you paid in. For a worker who started in 2001, they'll have to live to 97 to collect what they paid in. In other words, it's impossible for anyone in our generation to win. We're just being politically robbed, and we seem to be okay with it.

Anyway, maybe Obama will fix it for us... (?!).

8.22.2010

Vote Alvin Greene!

This is honestly the funniest thing I know about:

The greatest thing going on in the world right now is Alvin Greene (D), nominee for Senate in South Carolina. Pleeeeeze, if you aren't paying attention, start paying attention! Greene has an outside chance of ousting incumbent Jim DeMint (R).

At Keith Larson's page on wbt.com (my local news-radio station), there are ten interviews with Alvin Greene. Each one is solid. gold. But I really recommend the most recent (the tenth) interview. I can't link directly to the interviews, but I can offer a link to Keith Larson's page. After you follow that link, it's pretty easy to find interview #10.

Larson does an excellent job in all of these interviews keeping it together, but sometimes you can hear in his voice the pure astonishment. Anyway, seriously, Alvin Greene is taking me into the next level. I have long thought that politics was sort of serious business, and gotten more involved emotionally than I would like. Alvin Greene is teaching me not to be so serious.

Keith Olbermann clearly isn't in on the joke. In his own interview with A-Greene, Olbermann employs language that Hemingway would've described as "speaking with that omission of syntax stupid people employ when talking to drunken people or foreigners."

Donning the Cilice

In a 10-page article in today's NY Times about a bullshit "new stage" of psychological development (only in America) called "Emerging Adulthood," a 24-year old from Virginia is quoted saying,
"There is pressure to make decisions that will form the foundation for the rest of your life in your 20s. It’s almost as if having a range of limited options would be easier."
They always told me that the next Hitler would be popularly elected, but I couldn't see how that would be possible. But this kind of thinking is real, and ought to be discouraged, and ought to be frightening to us: Less freedom, they seem to be demanding. And the institutions as we have them are prepared to respond in one of two ways: either, as I hinted, to elect a dictator or Great Moral Leader, or else, the happier alternative, to create new institutions where these people can be "shepherded" for a few more years until they are ready to face the full-sheet of options.

I like to make fun of Psychology, so I called this a bullshit new stage of development. But it does seem (objectively, if we are to believe the article) true that today's young people are taking their sweet time "growing up" (defined basically as finishing school, getting married, having kids). And I'm not implying I have no sympathy for these wallowers: I marinated in limbo until I was almost 30 myself, and was very interested in "issues of identity" and the "sense of possibilities." But now I speak as a card-carrying grown up when I say that I think we ought to be pushing people off the diving board rather than helping them slowly inch their way to the end in fear.

To these wallowers, even the term "growing up" is ambiguous, and that makes sense -- they would have to trade in their naive faith that "it'll all work out just as they like" for the realities of never getting a good night's sleep, having to bite their tongue in committee meetings, or buying a less spectacular house than they had imagined. But this is one of those cases where I want to quote Pascal, or paraphrase him anyway, saying something like, "Kneel down, mouth the words of prayer, and then believe." Having crossed that river, I want to say that that's the only way: it will always feel like you're not ready, no matter how long public institutions make is safe and comfortable to forestall.

I only minored in psychology, but even that was enough to get me in on the secret that "discovering" a new stage in life is always a big deal. But I wonder at what point psychology will make a "Zen" move and suggest something even remotely counterintuitive? Oh, you're paralyzed by depression? Then see if you can lie still for three straight days without moving. Oh, you don't want to grow up? Then get married, get somebody pregnant, and take a job you don't want.

Put the damn hair-shirt on, kids. It's good for ya.

8.21.2010

Global Oneness Project

I like it. The third video features Peter Kingsley, whose books should by now have transformed the way you understand what philosophy was before it became an embarrassingly institutionalized form of mental masturbation (if you only have time for one video, watch that third one). Make sure to visit the "Film Library" at the Global Oneness Project's website--something for everybody there.







I've got a whole bunch of stuff from a while ago on Kingsley, if you're interested (now).

8.20.2010

A Spinal Cord for a Spinal Cord Leaves the Whole World Paralyzed

A judge in Saudi Arabia heard a case involving a man whose spine was injured when an attacker came at him with a meat cleaver. The injured man requested that, per Sharia law, the judge injure the attacker's spine in a similar manner.


(The judge has sent letters to local hospitals inquiring about whether any of them would perform the injury!)

8.18.2010

I Found a New Blog

Fascinating little segment on Jack London's raging racism, with commentary on how/why he's been remembered neither as a raging racist, nor as a die-hard progressive/socialist, but instead is taught as the guy who wrote a story about sleeping in a dog's intestines.

8.17.2010

What is Language? -- Schopenhauer & Wishydig

A recent and barely civil (my fault) comments string brings me to a question: what is language? For my purposes, it'll be helpful if we all start with the following paragraph from Schopenhauer (play along). This is from The World as Will and Idea:
Speech, as an object of outer experience, is obviously nothing more than a very complete telegraph which communicates arbitrary signs with the greatest rapidity and the finest distinctions of difference. But what do these signs mean? How are they interpreted? When someone speaks do we at once translate the words into pictures of the fancy, which instantaneously flash upon us, arrange and link themselves together, and assume form and colour according to the words that are poured forth and their grammatical inflections? What a tumult there would be in our brains while we listened to a speech, or to the reading of a book. But what actually happens is not this at all. The meaning of a speech is, as a rule, immediately grasped, accurately and distinctly taken in, without the imagination being brought into play. It is reason which speaks to reason, keeping within its own province.
Comments? Does that sound right: reason speaks to reason?

End of Melville Article!

My concluding paragraph (let's pray it's not too "lyrical" for the editors of Leviathan):

-----------

To consider Melville’s fiction, and Moby-Dick in particular, as spiritually evocative in nature requires, it is true, a leap away from typical models of literary criticism. But Melville’s own reading seems to have followed such a path: markings in Melville’s Bible show him underscoring Jesus’ parables often, and highlighting the discussions about the use of parables even more frequently. As Brian Yothers has remarked recently, “Melville’s markings [in his Bible]… indicate how his personal religious thought is inextricably intertwined with his sense of vocation as a novelist and a poet.”[1] To understand Melville’s fiction deeply, then, we must be willing to imagine—and perhaps even to experience—that which is beyond the text, that to which the text alludes. In a 2001 article on the connection between narrative and mystical experience, Catherine Garrett wrote,

…for most people, literature has more power than theory: that is, narrative reaches more people than metanarrative, even though behind every story is an earlier, greater story which gives it form. The power of narrative… comes from its ability to generate emotions to which theory can only refer.[2]

Garrett’s article focuses on the experiences of the well-known mystic, Julian of Norwich, whose mystical experience came after an extended period of personal suffering and despair. In the same vein, in William James’s chapter on “Mysticism” in The Varieties of Religious Experience, James notes that Saint John of the Cross proclaimed that the highest state of consciousness “is reached by ‘dark contemplation.’”[3] This path through challenging and deep, emotional doubt may not always yield fruit; but when it does, the result is not only a change in metaphysical perspective, but also a kind of renewal of the moral and ethical vision. This is the profound democracy—not of social class (for anyone may be initiated into this seeing, regardless of wealth or prestige or education)—but of soul. And it is for this reason the most unsettling; it promises neither perfect material equality, nor universal salvation; it destabilizes and undermines the structures of power that mainstream society takes for granted and comfortably works within; it may even have allowed the son of a bankrupt and half-mad fallen aristocrat to board a whaling ship, and learn the some of the holiest secrets of existence.



[1] Brian Yothers, “One’s Own Faith: Melville’s Reading of The New Testament and Psalms” (Leviathan 10.3 (Oct. 2008), 39-40.

[2] Garrett, Catherine. “Weal and Woe: Suffering, Sociology, and the Emotions of Julian of Norwich” (Pastoral Psychology, 49.3, 2001), 189.

[3] William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York, NY: The New American Library, 1958), 312.

8.16.2010

Property Rights and the Manhattan Mosque

For my 500th post on this blog, I'd like to publish something agreeable. So:

President Obama could end this truly appalling "conversation" about the Mosque in Manhattan if he would simply say, "It's about capitalism and property rights." Instead, he and the professional leftists continue speaking of "religious freedom." That building was for sale, and evidently, those people bought it. They ought to be allowed to build whatever they want on the site.

Of course, you'll never catch Obama defending capitalism and property rights. But it's unfortunate, because those rights are a natural fit with civil rights, including religious rights.

Plus, isn't buying land and building a mosque a better way of handling infidels than flying planes into their buildings? If anything, I see this mosque in Manhattan as the ultimate sign of America's victory in the ten-year war that began with 9/11. I mean, look: they're playing by our rules now!

(That's as agreeable as I get, folks)

8.15.2010

Freedom Link Dump

I feel a streak coming on here, so I'm just going to do it all in one post. Yes, I know this is mostly for myself, but I like having a post like this once in a while. Indulge me. In short, I prefer liberty to equality. And if asked why: because you can't have moral behavior under coercion.

The Mises Institute -- entirely open source, because Mises himself opposed the idea of "intellectual" property.

Lew Rockwell's site -- mostly Austrian in nature, Rockwell blogs libertarianly and frenetically.

The Libertarian Standard -- this one's new to me, but it looks promising, and sort of funny in the articles section.

The Cato Institute -- wonder if they'd hire a Ph.D. in English? Maybe as their education consultant?--I could work as a double agent, having infiltrated the academy without turning into a statist.

Thomas Sowell's Spot -- Sowell is good on everything as far as I'm concerned, but especially on education issues.

The Ayn Rand Institute -- Yes, there's a lot of bullshit here, but some good stuff too. Rand is best defending liberty, and pretty shaky when it comes to economics.

Marxists Internet Archive -- because truth only reveals itself as a whole picture. Seriously, there are a lot of great resources here.

Freedom Link

"If you treat people, so far as government is concerned, alike, the result is necessarily inequality; you can have either freedom and inequality, or unfreedom and equality."
Obviously! I just discovered a freaking awesome archive of interviews with Ludwig Wittgenstein's equally brilliant cousin, F.A. Hayek. Click here if Glenn Beck is just too easy for you.

I strongly endorse, for my "postmodernist" friends, the James Buchanan interview, part II -- then click the link for "Subjectivism in economics." I never understood how postmodernists collectively neglected the foundational insights of Austrian economics regarding the subjective nature of valuation. [Until I read Iris Murdoch, last month, on the way in which postmodernism and Marxism "hold hands under the table;" but that's another story]

I also recommend, from that same interview, also in part II, the twenty minutes or so that you'll get if you click the link to "Socialist Calculation Debate." That's the whole argument, folks. In summary, the best intentions are daunted by the inestimable vastness of "the economy" itself: no one, and no committee of experts, can possibly run a centralized economy as efficiently as free markets can.

Last thing I'll recommend is Part II of the interview with Robert Bork, who was memorably railroaded by the senate judicial committee in the 80s. Click the link to "Social Justice."

8.13.2010

Drunk Post

I don't drink much, but tonight I bouight a 24 oz. Bud Ice, and now, two-thirds of the way through it, it tastes like college. So I thought I'd just type some stuff and post it and who gives a crap. It's been like forever since I was drunk, so let's not lose this opportunity.

First, I'm sick of not having campfires with close friends. It's only around campfires, it seems to me, that everybody knows to put aside their fucking stupid differences like religion and politics and whatever, and just be cool.

Second, but, since we're not around a campfire: I'm sick of halfassedly agreeing with my liberal friends just to make them think I'm reasonable. For example, I'm actually NOT a racist. I just sometimes say I am because you tell me "everybody is." But I'm not. And another thing: I'm sick of defending my motives, so I'm going to flip this shit: I'm starting to believe (really, I am--this isn't just rhetoric [I'll get to Rhetoric next]) that progressives/liberals don't so much want to help all the poor people of the world as be thought of as caring about all the poor people of the world. I think that because how else can I explain that nothing in history as far as I can tell gives any support to any liberal/progressive notion of economic theory. It's rotten eggs all the way down, and the poor people are the ones who continue getting scrwed by it. Fucking tell me that Obama has done anything for anybody who's poor except make sure that they stay that way.

Third, I think people give up too easily. Where's our tenacity, people?

Fourth, I honestly like Glenn Beck (that one's going to get me in trouble. Let me explain: I like Glenn Beck relatively. I mean, it's not like I can get anyone to read Karl Popper or Carl Menger or Eugen (pronounced oy-gen) Bohm-Bawerk or Ludwig Von Mises... or even Thomas Jefferson. So I'll settle for Glenn Beck, who does whole hour-long pieces on Calvin Coolidge. I firmly believe that nobody evil has the kind of energy it takes to do a three-hour radio program, a one-hour television show, and write bestsellers, and show-up at the 8/28 rally in Washington.

Fifth, I just forgot to finish the bottom third of this beer. Hold on.

Sixth, I think I'll always wonder whether I'm understood by my father, and whether I understand him, and I fear that understanding will come too late, as in a Henry James novel.

Seventh, I just finished the New Testament again last night, and I wasn't particularly moved, which kinda upsets me.

Eights, America works out if you have faith. That's true. I got a job and a new office and a baby and a wife who loves me, all in four years since the Holy Spirit smacked my head at a bowling alley in Indiana.

(9) It's not just about reading Plato, it's about understanding him. When I dissented from postmodernism, people kneejerkedly accused me of being "a Platonist." I didn't knwo what that meant then, but now I think I do., And I'm honored. Thank you.

10: Oh yeah, Rhetoric. You bitches know there's a difference between truth-seeking speech and Rhetoric. You can't say the only difference between 1940s America and 1940s Soviet Union or 1940s Germany was rhetoric. It was reality.

11: A train's going by, which happens about 9 times a day.

12) You can't buy liquor in a grocery store in Norht Carolikna. Only liquor stores sell liquore. And all liquore stores are owned by the state. I haven't bought any liquor since I moved here, liberals.

1113: I did a presentation on superstition and the number 13 and the Detroit Tigers in fourth or fifth grade. I pretty much plagiarized it from a book.

14: I just finished my beer, and the Soup is on E!

Education & Propaganda

What's the difference between Education and Propaganda (or "Indoctrination?"). This is sort of a test question. I'm suspecting that some of my three readers will argue that it's always been a muddled and contingent difference, whereas my other reader might try to make a clear delineation. I know we've been over this with the difference between news & propaganda, but humor me.

Another Observation re: American Culture

This is a little uncomfortable, but another thing I've noticed is that every dufus-foil to be found in a television commercial is either a husband to a more refined wife, or a white person to a more refined black person. Of course--especially with race--these commercials could never be done the other way around. Not since about 1960.





And I know this is sociology 101, but why does every black person on TV have to be wearing a khaki-colored Nautica jacket over a Ralph Lauren golf shirt?

Observation on Language

I've noticed over the past year or so a change in linguistic trend--a trend led by late-teen girls, but now spreading:

Whereas in earlier times people generally started appropriate sentences, "I think...," and somewhat less frequently, "I believe...," the same genre of people are now beginning their sentences by saying, "I feel like...."

It first popped into my head to write about this yesterday as I was watching Chloe and Kourtney Kardashian talk about something on their stupid show. But I've noticed it many times before.

The obvious interpretation is that we've finally entered an era where irrationality and "heart" are valued more highly than rationality and mind. I'm talking to you, Liberals.

8.11.2010

Writing Style

A lawyer friend asks, "I wonder if our jobs influence our writing styles?"

I reply,
Oh, I think absolutely. I've developed, since halfway through graduate school, a circumlocutory style that usually produces the effect of mystery on my readers. I'm conscious of this, and in conversations with trusted (i.e., non-academic) friends, embarrassed by it -- but it's that style that allowed me to get through graduate school without speaking what I believed to be outright lies: if I could be all-over-the-place enough, without being grammatically incorrect, my readers would be mystified. And if, on top of that, I quote sources that they have always felt ashamed not to have read, like Plotinus's Enneads or something by Santayana or Simone Weil -- you know, something they would've read if they hadn't read all 37 of Foucault's books -- then they would usually let me go sort of figuring I knew what I was talking about.

8.09.2010

Get Religion!

One of my good friends just started a blog about comedy. I wouldn't be surprised if the site "takes off," but I'm not convinced that more laughs are what Americans need right now. Last week we may have hit a national low when President Obama fiddled while the empire burned appeared on The View to joke about Snooki. I'm certain that a greater percentage of Americans know the meaning of the phrase "Gym-Tan-Laundry" than can name even one of the authors of the Federalist Papers. The "news" channels feature lead stories about sharks spotted off Chatham Beach and scatting cartoon kittens. A vast, vast majority of Americans speak only English. Almost none of them have read the Bible, though apparently all of them have read all eight Harry Potter books and all three Dan Brown and Stieg Larsson books.

In a recent sermon ("Religion"), the minister at my Unitarian Universalist Church, after joking that religion is nefariously difficult to define (he told the one about the little girl whose teacher asks, "What are you drawing?" "God," the girl says. "But no one knows what God looks like," the teacher says. "They will in a minute," the girl quips.), offered his own definition of religion:
Religion is an intentional effort to engage with the intrinsic, insolvable, ineffable paradoxes in human experience.
Honestly: are we all, we Americans--not we academics--are we all doing that? Might we? Should we? This criticism isn't aimed, as most of my criticisms are, at academics. However obscure or off-the-mark I think their scholarship is, most academics are engaging the mysteries of experience in an intentional way. But are we calling the rest of America to join us, or are we lowering ourselves to their level?

I have nothing against comedy, especially among those who are little-r "religious," like most all of my academic friends. But America generally, it seems to me, would do well to rediscover its seriousness, and I think academics might be in a position to lead the way.

And the "religious" are not off the hook either, regardless of whether they cherish Melville or the Bible or Levinas or The Upanishads or Emerson or Schopenhauer overmuch. The minister concluded,
Religion's most common error is mistaking the pointer for that which is being pointed to. It's a bit like falling in love with a photograph rather than the one who is pictured. Or a little like going to a museum and paying attention to the frames rather than appreciating the art... so for example when certain religious people forget that their sacred texts are ways of trying to point to a life within, and instead start to think of their texts as what really matters, they are mistaking a pointer for that to which it points--a mere means for the real deal.

Centralized Communications

All of the people including Glenn Beck and to his "right" (yes, there are plenty, including the Michigan Militia and Alex Jones, etc.) are convinced that America is just one step away from autocratic dictatorship. The final step, they prophecy, will be for the federal government to "seize the airwaves."

I wouldn't have worried much about that, given Glenn Beck's large presence in the media, but the more I read about Net Neutrality (sorry, Wrangler), the more I'm starting to fear that the conspiracy-freaks might be right. I wish we could have a clearer, more direct, conversation about what's at stake here, including specific examples of how corporations are currently (supposedly) blocking access to certain products or information. I know that generally, liberals are for Net Neutrality, and conservatives oppose it, but I'm not sure that a sizable minority on either side could give good reasons for their positions.

Best I can tell, people on the left tend to believe that the government will protect citizens' interests by ensuring that there will be no "unequal access" to information or resources on the net. People on the right want to (continue to) trust the market to distribute resources according to demand. My question for those on the left is: doesn't that sound good only as long as "your team" is in charge of running whatever FCC-style department is in charge of regulating the airwaves? Do you really trust a conservative to enforce equal-access laws the way that you want to see them take shape?

But honestly--in genuine earnestness--I may not understand what's going on here. And I'd like to.

Maybe here's a framing question: how is the internet fundamentally different than the television airwaves? I may believe that there's too much "liberal" spin on news channels in America, but I don't want the government to step in to try to balance that (see for example: NPR).

New Efforts to Pierce the Veil of Mystery

A few years ago, I wrote a poem:

Engineering
Inside the Great Pyramid, a narrowing corridor
Approaches an antechamber
Uphill making more than one great step before
Encountering a floating girdle stone
And a blocking stone
Lowered into place before time
To protect the king’s chamber
And the coffer in which he is buried.
The corridor is narrower than human shoulders.
Formerly, the ascending passageway pointed at Sirius
But the position of stars has changed since the king was buried.
The final blocking limestone at the end of the
Corridor too narrow for human shoulders
Reveals two eroding copper handles.
I may be confusing some of the essential facts,
But nonetheless, I wonder why,
If the corridor is too narrow for human shoulders,
There is a floating girdle stone
And a blocking
Antechamber nonsense copper eroding handles
To protect the king in case you made it through
The corridor too narrow for human shoulders
There is a heavy limestone
With eroding copper handles
Observed (only) by a robot named Upuaut
Whose shoulders were narrow enough to pass
But not strong enough to lift the final blocking limestone
By its eroding copper handles,
And this is where things stand.

Anyway, I was hoping to publish it one day. Now it looks like I'm going to be too late!

Fragmentary paragraph, in the works...

Scholars in psychology and philosophy have been zeroing in on such evocative [mystical] language over the past decade, and some researchers have been quick to point out that there is an important reason for the struggle to overcome the limitations of language: on the other side of that divide, if we are to believe the mystics, lies an experience of unity-with-others that confirms a metaphysical view of “Oneness.” Further, and more importantly, there is a necessary ethical consequence to such a metaphysical perspective—a consequence that Melville approached most directly in his description of the monkey-rope in chapter 72 of Moby-Dick: Ishmael says, “So strongly and metaphysically did I conceive of my situation then, that while earnestly watching [Queequeg’s] motions, I seemed distinctly to perceive that my own individuality was now merged in a joint stock company of two” (320). This is a difficult and important philosophical point, especially in an era where the work of Emmanuel Levinas, which emphasizes the primacy of Ethics (or the escape from metaphysics), is held in high esteem.[1] In contrast to Levinas, who argues that Ethics must not be a consequence but a given, Melville, alongside countless mystics, philosophers, and theologians, seems to have believed that the ethical practice would fall into place if the proper metaphysical perspective could be attained. In a recent article published in the Journal of Religious Ethics, Daniel Zelinski summarized this point by borrowing from Meister Eckhart: “the Golden Rule is not a rule at all, but a reward which one is given.”[2] So this intention to pull readers across the linguistic divide into a mystical awareness is not without important ethical and political consequences: bringing about a state of consciousness where one intuits his really-existing metaphysical connection to others may very probably have been felt as an urgent end for Melville as the specter of Civil War loomed. If the American political experiment required an exceptional kind of individual consciousness in its citizens, Melville’s literary mysticism can be understood as participating in the effort--often reserved for religion--of transforming lives. “For a mystic,” Matthew Bagger has written recently, “paradox does not mark the limit of human cognition; rather, paradox opens out onto a plane of exceptional cognition.”[3]


[1] See Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics and Infinity (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1982), 45-52.

[2] Zelinski, Daniel. “From Prudence to Morality: A Case for the Morality of Some Forms of Nondualistic Mysticism,” Journal of Religious Ethics 35.2 (Jun. 2007), 299.

[3] Bagger, Matthew C. The Uses of Paradox: Religion, Self-Transformation, and the Absurd. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 9.

8.08.2010

Confessions (and Accusations)

The moral precept that I struggle most with is the command that I feel deep in my conscience to not worry about what others are doing.

Fifteen years ago, I never worried what others were doing. I was easy-going, tolerant of different behaviors (if a bit aloof), non-judgmental, and, conversely, generally self-satisfied, content, and well... happy.

Then when I was 18, a freshman in an introductory college composition course, luck of the draw put me into JW's class. Although she was in her early fifties, she had recently finished her Ph.D. in rhetoric and composition from a mid-level Midwestern university. She introduced us to Foucault in the second week of class. In the first class she asked us to list all of the synonyms we could think of for penis, and then for vagina, to prove that, because there are more synonyms for vagina, we were obviously living in a patriarchal society. I had contributed something like eleven synonyms for vagina during that exercise. One assignment called for us to "do a semiotic analysis of a personal space." Trusting as I was, I decided to do just what the professor said, so I went home and looked around my room.

I noted that I was making the most of my small personal space, jotted down a few other observations that were apparently uninteresting to my professor, and then inadvertently gave her the red-meat she was looking for: "The posters of the bikini-clad women taped to my walls," I began, "feature good looking women making eye-contact with the camera. I suppose it produces the illusion that they're looking at me, and I like--"

My professor was "horrified," and called me into her office, to explain to me that my bedroom's decor was... sexist. I got a B in the class, even though my writing was very clearly technically better than some of my friends who earned A's. Not incidentally, she asked me with a smile whether she might use my essay as an example in an article she was working on. [The article was never published, except as a conference paper as part of the proceedings--she used me as an example of a student who needed enlightening, more or less.]

Since then, I've struggled with judging others. I tend to be indirect about it, but chances are, if I've spent any time with you, I'm dissatisfied with some aspect of your personal behavior. Indeed, I wouldn't mind seeing you behave a little more like me. Furthermore, since that ambush my freshman year, I'm less likely to be satisfied with my own situation in life, and I frequently catch myself comparing my own situation (material, spiritual, etc.) to others'.

Although I keep my criticisms of others to myself--and try to keep my whining about comparative well-being to myself--I am not a better person for these traits. I can affect an open-minded persona, of course (I fooled my dissertation committee), but I have become a tyrant inside, and the worst kind: one who lacks self-esteem.

Ironically, paradoxically, the prelapserian me, the Edenic me who hadn't been through the rigors of freshman composition class, would have simply taken all of this in stride--would even have confidently assumed that everyone felt similarly, and would have made the most of it--might even have shrugged it all off. But I picked-up on and internalized the skills of the critical/judgmental thinking executed-on me freshmen year, and so my reaction now, immoral and uncouth as I know it sounds, is to blame my fallen state on JW and her judgmental pedagogy. The lonely dried up bitch.

8.06.2010

"The false god punishes, the true god slays."

My new favorite book is called Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals; it was published in 1992 by Iris Murdoch. Oh, the headaches I could've saved myself if someone had assigned this book to me at the outset of indoctrination graduate school! Here are some excerpts [NOTE: Murdoch uses the term "structuralism" to indicate what we might refer to as "post-structuralism" or "postmodernism"]:
  • [Derrida's] Structuralism poses as a neutral quasi-scientific theory. Marxism was a theory of history which used historical evidence established by traditional methods to support its world-view. An aspect of structuralism is to regard history as fabulation, and 'the past' as a meaning-construct belonging to the present. It is, and admittedly, rhetoric versus reason. Of course we cannot see the past, so we must be though of as inventing it. This fake choice blots out the conception of seeking carefully for some truthful conception of the past. Marxism and (Derrida's) structuralism can join forces however in their rejection of God and religion and their hostility to 'bourgeois' views and values, seen as solidifying a view of the world which new revolutionary forces must destroy. Happily, since I wrote the above, the Zeitgeist, assisted by very many courageous individuals, has discredited and is demolishing Marxism. One of the first things which liberated people want to know is the truth about their past.
  • Of course there is much novelty, scholarship, brilliance, to be seen in the structuralist compound. What is objectionable is the damage done to other modes of thinking and to literature by the presentation of this fanciful metaphysic as a fundamental system. Philosophy, anthropology, history, literature, have different procedures and methods of verification. It is only when the idea of truth as relation to separate reality is removed that they can seem in this odd hallucinatory light to be similar. With the idea of truth the idea of value also vanishes. Here the deep affinity, the holding hands under the table, between structuralism and Marxism becomes intelligible.
  • ...it is a merit of structuralism to indicate to us, with so much energy and so much learning, that the concept of the individual which we have inherited from centuries of thinkers cannot any longer be taken for granted but must be defended.
  • ...in the time to come, which we are not told but might gloomily prophecy, the majority of people will make contact only with the childishly simple machinery, as the great machines which explore the depths of what will then be thought of as human reality will only be understood by brilliant and highly trained experts. Most people, unable to read, will be watching television. Television, the dictator's best friend, already erodes our ability to read. What is, and not implausibly, envisaged here is an apocalyptic change in human consciousness, involving vast social changes and the disappearance of old local ideas of individuals and virtues. A loss of sovereignty.
  • What is important is that we now take in conceptions of religion without God, and of meditation as religious exercise. There is, just as there used (with the old God) to be, a place of wisdom and calm to which we can remove ourselves. We can make our own rites and images, we can preserve the concept of holiness. The veil of Maya is not a single mysterious screen which can suddenly be whisked away by magic. We need the Platonic picture here. We are moving through a continuum within which we are aware of truth and falsehood, illusion and reality, good and evil. We are continuously striving and learning, discovering and discarding images. Here we are not forced to choose between a 'religious life' and a 'secular life,' or between being a 'goodie' and being a cheerful egoist! The whole matter is far more complex and more detailed. Our business is with the continual activity of our own minds and souls and with our possibilities of being truthful and good. Incidentally, and philosophically, we may see here the necessity of the concept of consciousness.
  • Learning is moral progress because it is an asceticism, it diminishes our egoism and enlarges our conception of truth, it provides deeper, subtler and wiser visions of the world. What should be taught in schools: to attend and get things right.
  • We must indeed preserve and cherish a strong truth-bearing everyday language, not marred or corrupted by technical discourse or scientific codes; and thereby promote the clarified objective knowledge of man and society of which we are in need as citizens, and as moral agents.

8.05.2010

What Happened to Education.

I wonder how long American universities can continue doing what they're doing without the American public wising up. I'm thinking about writing a book. It's not that there's anything wrong with forming a culturally-insular institution that enforces certain ways of thinking and speaking; it's just that pretending to not be such an institution is cowardly at best, and altogether demonic at worst.

Conservative freak-show/radio talk show voice Michael Medved reports, via Townhall.com (one of my conservative sources) that university officials at Augusta State are threatening to expel a graduate student who expressed the opinion that homosexuality is immoral behavior.

Way to go, postmodernism. If this wasn't your intention, it was a contingency you should've been on guard against. Convince everyone there's no grand narratives... but then allow only one grand narrative? Come on.

Immigration Policy

I've got a link (click here) to a pretty stunning memo written and released by the Union workers of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). It's a vote of no-confidence in the director of ICE, and if we had a responsible mainstream journalism in this country that wasn't carrying water for Obama, this would be front page news on every paper in the country.

It's only two pages long, so I won't bother summarizing it. Suffice it to say that it paints a surprising picture of just how bad things have gotten. No wait, I can't resist regurgitating just one of the bullet points:
  • While ICE reports internally that more than 90 percent of ICE detainees are first encountered by ICE in jails after they are arrested by local police for criminal charges, ICE senior leadership misrepresents this information publicly in order to portray ICE detainees as being non-criminal in nature to support the [Obama] Administration's position on amnesty and relaxed security at ICE detention facilities.

8.04.2010

Knowing when to Assent

I love when people have the courage to deliver a sermon without planning it. It happens too seldom. While I was on vacation, I found on a beach at sunset myself listening to my sister-in-law--a 27-year old who has traveled around much of the world and who is getting certified to be a Yoga instructor--preach about how to make things right. She said something like this:
It's not about what the religion is called, or even about whether you call God "God" or "Allah," or whether you learn about God through the Bible or Yoga or meditation; people need to stop worrying about how other people do it. We all need to realize that there are many paths, and that they all may lead to that holy end. Too many people want to divide-off into "us" and "them," and say that others are doing it wrong, and advocate for their way.
Then, undermining her passion and making a mockery out of her speech, I said,
Or do "we" need to accept even those who divide themselves off, and accept even those who claim the Bible is the only way, and accept that we are only a meaningful "we" if there is no "they?"
But looking back on it, remembering how I and my sister-in-law and a friend of hers and my wife and daughter and mother-in-law and step-father-in-law--how we all were just sitting there drinking beer with our toes in the sand, getting chilly in the summer as the sun set behind us and the waves grew tired in front of us... I wish I had said nothing, or even nodded in quiet agreement.