Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Sports: Metaphor for Metaphor for Tr-th

I don't have much to say in response (or maybe I do but I'm not willing to admit it), but this article is one awesome piece of sports journalism. It's superficially about Michael Vick and about killing dogs, but it's really about American history and "race." Er.... race. Well?--which is it?

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Another Little Dose of Tr-th

By kindergarten, I knew them as cold pricklies and warm fuzzies. This webpage made me laugh, though, because it's true.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Supermodel Comments on Racialist Ideology; Dissents

One of the serious problems of institutional education is that students are often more capable of learning how to get by than they are of learning a principle. In most cases, this dynamic is illustrated in those moments where students say "the right thing" but without investing much thought in the principle that ought-to-have prompted the otherwise good answer.

A good example for my generation remains Hitler. Before I can remember, one of my teachers constructed a very tight association between Hitler and evil, and subsequent teachers tightened the association. Of course, they were right. But being the quick and pragmatic fellow that I am and always have been, I learned to repeat what I had heard -- like Pavlov's dogs, I heard "Hitler" and responded "evil." But this is a benign example; there is no harm in calling Hitler evil. Although it does seem remotely disappointing that I gave little conscious thought to the matter before I turned about 20.

On the other hand, what happens when cultural changes outstrip pedagogical theory's ability to update itself? For example, in the 1980s, when I was growing up, the catch word for matters relating to race was "tolerance." It was a wonderful term compared to the phrase it superceded: "Separate but Equal." But eventually "tolerance" seemed to imply something undesirable -- after all, we "tolerate" things we don't particularly like. "Diversity" became the replacement term, and it does indeed seem preferable. But is there something embedded within even that term that isn't working anymore? I asked my students the other day, prompted by their aggressive apathy concerning the matter of race in America -- I urged them to talk candidly, promised I would not point at any of them and declare, "Racist!"

A consensus grew around two problems: 1) They all knew what (they thought) I wanted to hear. They (thought they) had heard it all before. "Racism is bad; diversity is good," and one even got up the nerve to mutter "blahblahblah" ironically. And 2) Diversity implies difference, and they were not willing to accept fundamental distinctions between people based on skin color.

Of course, all of this sounded suspiciously like white-privilege and avoidance to me (even when two black students agreed) -- after all, I have received my own careful training at the hands of institutional educators. But as I walked back to my office after class, it occurred to me that their resistance may not be passive aggressive racism, but rather unsophisticated consensus about something-other-than-racism. What if they were actually dealing with the principle (for once!!!)? What if they have truly experienced race-in-America differently than I and my predecessors have? Possible? Unlikely?

I'm still suspicious, and I'll probably continue to be. But now to my point (and, I honestly never thought I'd be linking to anything like this): Adrianne Curry's recent personal blog post on race is generating massive amounts of response, and I thought it worth pointing out, if only because there are so many comments in support of what she says.

I suppose we, especially those of us in the academy, could ignore this kind of thing -- that's one option. But if we don't, there are about two ways of dealing: 1) either this outburst from Curry is evidence of a gigantic and apparently growing problem; racism is (still) gaining ground as an ideology, OR 2) we might suppose that, through poorly expressed 7th-grade caps-locked phrases there are no ill-intentions, and that, untactful as these sentiments are, her call for "unity" reflects a growing ideology of utopian hopefulness and what Paul Gilroy calls post-raciological thinking. I will say: it doesn't help that Curry gets all racist-cliche by saying, "I even had a black boyfriend once!"

Honestly, I would be fully comfortable supposing this to be an example of racist ideology except for the note of sincerity that Curry manages to strike in her very last line: "now, have fun burning me at the stake." It's as if she knows that she will be attacked, which makes it no fun attacking her... Hmm.

Meanwhile. So much for utopia.

(Weird Update: Apparently Hitler is a more interesting case for some folks.)

Friday, September 21, 2007

Movie Recommendation

I take great pleasure in recommending an Icelandic film titled Nói albínói, because I genuinely loved it -- and (here's the most pleasurable part for me) I know that some people won't. If you rent it, make sure to watch the "Making of Noi" thingy after the film -- it's one of the best explanations I've ever heard of the Romantic aesthetic, though the director never calls it that.

Watch it.

Sexuality and Rhetorically-Suspect-Knee-Jerk-ism

Thesis: Aging hippies talk a better game than they play.

Evidence: There was a small news item today about a reporter asking Hillary Clinton a stupid question: "How do you respond to the occasional rumor that you're a lesbian?" Our future president replied, "It's not true, but it is something that I have no control over. People will say what they want to say" (emphasis added).

First, I want to say that the source of sexuality seems to me to be an unresolved and unresolvable question; something like: Why do I like cheese more than tofu? Or brunettes more than blondes? So what follows isn't so much to claim that sexuality is a choice (I actually suspect that it's not) as it is a reiteration of the question.

Emphasizing the choicelessness of homosexuality seems to be the going line among self-proclaimed progressives, especially among baby-boomers. This is one of those questions that pops up in all kinds of bizarre corners of the internet. Google terms: "homosexuality + choice."

Now, for the record: hate groups and orthodox religionists insist that being gay is a choice, and a bad one. That works for them.

But it does not seem (to me) a very thoughtful response to say: "Being gay is not a choice."

Enlightened as I am, I tend to see a person's sexuality as morally neutral, which leads me to this question: who cares whether it's a choice or not? If homosexuality is a choice, after all, it seems a perfectly fine choice to me.

So my question to future-President Clinton and those who share the same perspective is: Doesn't the strenuous insistence on "fate" with regard to homosexuality seem to imply that it is not a co-equal behavior with heterosexuality? As I suggested above, if you believe as I do that sexuality is not a moral issue, then why so resistant to the idea that it might be a choice?

Comparative Example: Parents and teachers tend to believe that children shouldn't use swear words in elementary school, and adults feel comfortable saying things like, "Watch your language!" to the linguistic transgressors. But when the child has Tourette's, we say things like, "Well, the child isn't transgressing willfully when he screams 'sh*t-f---" every ten seconds."

If homosexuality is a kind of transgression, it makes sense to justify it by saying "it's not a choice!" If, on the other hand, it is not a transgression (as I'm claiming), then why do we feel motivated to disclaim it as a choice?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

For Discussion: Is there Wisdom?

Brian's recent post at The Truth Cave has precipitated a great dialogue, and I'm struck by the "simplicity" of the prompt. My post below on Captain Ahab makes a woeful contrast, I'm afraid.

So instead, I'm attempting to mimic Brian's success with this -- for discussion:

Is there wisdom?

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Concerning Ahab

After Captain Ahab gives his famous "Quarter-Deck" speech in Moby-Dick, which convinces most of the crew to join him in the vengeful quest to kill the white whale, Ahab encounters a little resistance in the character of Starbuck, who proclaims, "Vengeance on a dumb brute... that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous."

Ahab pauses and feels compelled to reframe his argument for Christian Starbuck: "But come closer, Starbuck; thou requirest a little lower layer." Ahab explains to Starbuck, who represents the last bit of resistance, that all things, "all visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks." It's one of those lines that is quoted again and again by critics, but I doubt whether most of these critics have considered the possibility that Ahab includes the whale among the group of "all visible objects." And yet, that seems to be precisely what Ahab suggests to Starbuck at the "little lower layer": each event--in the living act, the undoubted deed--there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask!

This exclamation implies that it is not the whale, nor, in turn, Ahab's revenge, that underlies the hunt -- instead, it is the unknown thing that comes from behind the thing itself. Ahab is not after the whale except as a "practically assailable" representation of the "thing itself" that Ahab cannot tolerate. But further on, Ahab calms down (as he sees Starbuck's resistance cool):
So, so; thou reddenest and palest; my heat has melted thee to anger-glow. But look ye, Starbuck, what is said in heat, that thing unsays itself. There are men from whom warm words are small indignity. I meant not to incense thee. Let it go. Look! see yonder Turkish cheeks of spotted tawn--living, breathing pictures painted by the sun. The Pagan leopards--the unrecking and unworshipping things, that live; and seek, and give no reasons for the torrid life they feel! The crew, man, the crew! Are they not one and all with Ahab, in this matter of the whale? See Stubb! he laughs! See yonder Chilian! he snorts to think of it. Stand up amid the general hurricane, thy one tost sapling cannot, Starbuck! And what is it? Reckon it. 'Tis but to help strike a fin; no wondrous feat for Starbuck.

Doesn't this suggest, as I think it does, that "striking a fin" is at most a secondary concern for Ahab? In the next chapter, Ahab, alone on deck, soliloquizes, "Oh, hard! that to fire others, the match itself must needs be wasting!" -- which seems to point to the unification of "the crew, the crew" as an end in itself. In this view, it could be almost anything (slaying the white whale will do) that serves as the motivator; unity is the whole point.

Earlier in chapter 37, Ahab says to himself:

Is, then, the crown too heavy that I wear? this Iron Crown of Lombardy. Yet it is bright with many a gem; I, the wearer, see not its far flashings; but darkly feel that I wear that, that dazzlingly confounds. 'Tis iron--that I know--not gold. 'Tis split, too--that I feel; the jagged edge galls me so, my brain seems to beat against the solid metal; aye, steel skull, mine; the sort that needs no helmet in the most brain-battering fight.

I really want to read this, especially in light of the reference to the Crown of Lombardy and the Biblical Ahab, as concerning the problem of authority. Who will lead us, and by what right, if not the "designated by G-d" justification? Ahab seems to think that he will, even if it means the end of him ("To fire others, the match itself must needs be wasting!").

There is a kind of majestic lie beneath all of this, but it seems clear to me that Ahab's ultimate goal is "to fire others," perhaps to unify them -- and he will say anything to that end. Plotinus, at least, sees this kind of single-vision (the critics call it "monomania") as a virtue:

Those that refuse to place the Proficient aloft in the Intellectual Realm but drag him down to the accidental, dreading accident for him, have substituted for the Proficient we have in mind another person altogether; they offer us a tolerable sort of man and they assign to him a life of mingled good and ill, a case, after all, not easy to conceive. But admitting the possibility of such a mixed state, it could not be deserved to be called a life of happiness; it misses the Great, both in the dignity of Wisdom and in the integrity of Good. The life of true happiness is not a thing of mixture. And Plato rightly taught that he who is to be wise and to possess happiness draws his good from the Supreme, fixing his gaze on That, becoming like to That, living by That… He can care for no other Term than That: all else he will attend to only as he might change his residence, not in expectation of any increase to his settled felicity, but simply in a reasonable attention to the differing conditions surrounding him as he lives here or there.

This "tolerable sort of man" is the Representative Man for postmodernism, and Plotinus found him deficient. Hmm...

Phantom Blog from the Past

When I disassembled my first blog, which was an experiment in thinking named after Herman Melville's novel, Mardi, or, A Voyage Thither, it had a Google Page Rank of 5/10 and was getting something like 60 visits a day. Now, it turns out, some traffic-hungry sychophant (i.e., enterprising entrepreneur) has slid into my former slot without so much as a tip of the cap in my direction! And as if that weren't enough, he or she has had the gall to attemp to retain some of my former readers (note the links in the left column: "Web Pages Referring to This Page"). Worst of all, this remainder blog has silly posts that are presumably unworthy of the traffic that my writing initially attracted to that web address.

Anyway, to check out this suspicious phantom blog, still titled A Voyage Thither, click here.

Oh well, "voyaging thither" is so last year.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

On Criticism, Literature, and Forgiveness

I've been thinking lately about the seeming absence of any scholarly treatment of the subject of guilt. More directly, I am disappointed about the apparent unwillingness of academics to turn the lens of judgment back upon themselves. To be sure, academics love to fault "academics" in general, even for petty ethical offenses, but it is a very rare case where a reputable scholar confronts the problem of personal culpability.

I have a theory about why this fundamental element of psychology is generally avoided scholars that goes like this: we have developed plenty of suggestions for judgment (moral, ethical, aesthetic), but none (or few) on forgiveness. Consequently, admission of personal culpability seems to be an irremediable action.

So the indignant academic goes around pointing his bony, accusatory index finger at everything and everyone under the sun without ever faulting himself.

Part of this is philosophy's fault. Philosophy has always been ill-equipped to deal with time in relation to ethics. That is, the philosopher makes thoroughly informed judgment about the moment of (un)ethical action, but has little to say about the causes or consequences that frame the scene. This is where the narrative comes in, and why I will defend fiction as a necessary mode of thinking. The almost inhuman judgment of philosophy declares, "Thou art unjust," and marches onward toward the tr-th (or whatever philosophy is doing these days). On the other hand, fiction often witnesses the unjust act early in a sequence of events, and does not fail to follow the unjust actor, even if he recognizes and regrets the injustice of his action.

Here's a philosophical example:
Scene: One person beats another person up.
Judgment: Unjust.

Now consider an alternative example, made literary:
Scene: When I was 10-years old, I used to beat my 7-year old brother up when my mom left us alone. Now, at age 29, I realize that that was immoral, and I have sincerely apologized to my brother. He has told me that I am forgiven, but sometimes, I still feel bad about it.
Judgment: Somewhere between unjust and "that's life."

Is this an important difference? Does philosophy address this difference--can it? There are other things I could confess, but I don't want to spend all my nickels in one store. Let it be understood, though: I, the author of Q-Majin?, have been unjust. Unfortunately, I suppose I don't yet qualify as a "reputable scholar."

(P.S. -- reading Hawthorne might have something to do with all of this. More later.)

Friday, September 14, 2007

Dissertation in a Nutshell

Below you can read the latest version of my "dissertation paragraph" from the most recent draft of my cover letter. I certainly am a genius, but it sure is difficult to prove it in 300 words or less! Many of you have unwittingly helped me compose major chunks of this, so I thought there might be enough interest to warrant a little sharing: first chapter demonstrates the ways that Poe’s theory of Perversity undermined a popular trust in the principle of rational self-interest by making explicit the processes of ratiocination that can precede unethical human action. In a study of “The Cask of Amontillado,” I connect the impulse to confess with Perverse psychology, rather than with guilt, to show that, for Poe, there existed a substantial gap between thought and action. My chapter on Harriet Jacobs, original for its extensive treatment of Jacobs’ literary style, explores the issue of historical veracity and the dynamics of the literary truth-claim. By stylizing her narrative, interposing a partially fictionalized narrator, and reporting seemingly clear incidents through a lens of mystery, Jacobs discovers her most effective voice of resistance. I argue that “Linda Brent’s” perception of the mysterious in natural objects and experience is thoroughly romantic and that it is this thinking that allows her to integrate and accept her traumatic past without accepting the same in the present. My chapter on Herman Melville focuses on Moby-Dick, and continues to develop the concept of ethical perception—what I call “the ethics of seeing.” By undermining Ishmael’s narrative authority and extending a sympathetic reading to characters like Captain Ahab and Pip, I further refine the idea that an action as “natural” or instinctive as perception may ultimately fall under the power of will. Influenced by the recent work of critics like Jay Grossman and W.C. Harris, I argue that the scope of Melville’s metaphysical vision is the result of a particularly keen sensitivity to changes in culture and law, and that Melville’s seemingly abstract interest in the ancient problem of “the One” and “the Many” (Unity and Plurality) is directly relevant to the American political landscape. My chapter on Hawthorne, which is currently being drafted, offers the narrative structures of The Marble Faun as necessary for examining the nature of dynamic ethical obligation and traces the psychological, spiritual and social consequences of unjust action. Although my project is informed by the cultural and historical criticism that precedes it, I have reintroduced a distinctly romantic sense of timelessness into my study by focusing on interpersonal obligation and individual psychology. Inspired by the methods of the writers I study, I have consciously focused on aspects of the human condition that do not change, even while tracing the dynamism of legal and social institutions.

It's hard to believe that this and is what will determine the rest of my life. Maybe it's not that cosmic, though. In fact, I'm going to buy a lottery ticket on the way to work today: 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42... right?

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Global Warming as New Age Apocalypse?

Pollution and smog are bad, and nobody should leave their lights on when they leave the house because it's wasteful, and we shouldn't destroy the rainforest, and polar bears sure are cute... but still. Again, I really think.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

More on The Ethics of Seeing (?)

Someone have an interpretation of this for me? (from Matthew 6:22-23):
The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

See also, Luke 11: 34-36. Does Jesus mean that those of us with good eyesight are better off, more likely to be saved, enlightened--something like that? Or is this suggestive of some deeper insight not related to literal vision?

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Total Solar Eclipse

Lately, I've seen the image of a solar eclipse a little too frequently -- I'm sure this has something to do with my personal transition into "adulthood," whatever that is. And although it might make me a little bit like Captain Ahab, reading meaning where none exists, I think I might not just be "noticing" it more frequently -- I suspect the image is making its appearance a little more often lately than it typically does (typical by pop-culture standards, of course; it's extremely rare in nature). See also, my post on the Ethics of Seeing.

As a symbol, it is wonderfully suggestive, and works at the cultural level as well as it does at a personal level; I cannot imagine a more perfect representation than the image of a solar eclipse for any major, radical change in dominant culture or personal psychology. Mel Gibson used it in Apocalypto, and Ellen Bryant Voigt made it the cover of her semi-recent book of poems, Kyrie. And I've seen it in a few recent dreams, so...

Here's an awesome video of a 2006 total eclipse somewhere near Turkey, I think:

Click here to see a chart of where and when to view a total solar eclipse. Looks like Aug. 21st, 2017 will be the next good chance for most of us, as a total solar eclipse will be visible on a line cutting across the U.S. Be there or miss the official dawning of the Age of Aquarius.

P.S. -- has anyone else ever noticed the correspondence between the image of a solar eclipse and the image of the pupil and cornea of an eyeball? Some "coincidence," huh "Brian"?:

Thursday, September 6, 2007

S. Divinorum

They didn't have this when we were in high school, and I'm glad: salvia divinorum. Believe it or not, despite voluminous testimony like this--"I have tried virtually every illegal drug known to man, and have never felt more out of control or uncomfortable as I felt on Salvia" (source)--salvia is legal in more than 40 American states. Read about its legal status here, or click here to see dozens of teenagers "tripping" on the substance and, with no fear of the law, posting their experience on You Tube.

I've always leaned libertarian, I suppose, so I won't make a Nancy Reagan argument; but two things about this strike me as really wrong.

1) The fact that this drug is legal means that You Tube allows videos of people doing it, which wouldn't be so horrifying if...

2) ...Salvia didn't cause "ego death" and "union with the divine godhead" and "breaking through to the other side." This stuff is not on the casual/light side of drugs, according to the extensive testimony available at Here, for example, is a description of something that I don't want my 16-year old son or daughter to have to think about "trying" with some of their buddies:

This is the difficult part of the account where I attempt, as many others have before me, to describe the end of life and identity, the ego-death. There nothing but a sensation at first, not of being ripped apart but of having been ripped apart. I couldn't say that I had been ripped apart, as in a million pieces—there were no pieces because there was nothing the pieces would consist of... I had no physical body. The sensation now gave way to awareness, and I had a sense that I HAD BEEN something with a physical body which was suddenly extinguished by a strong force pulling to the right. There was a sort of two-dimensional plane which I was pushed through rightward, and as I went through I lost all perceptions, memories, and sensations of my life in human form on this earth. There was no pain, it was instantaneous. But still, I was only conscious in the most basic sense... aware, not consciously thinking these thoughts, but perceiving them. It is not unlike the state of waking up from a dream with the memory of it still very present as the body adjusts to the state of waking life... except my life was the dream, and as I was suddenly 'awakened' all sense of that life was gone.

Read the rest of that experience--click here. The paranoia that follows is unsettling:

" It was as if by taking this drug I had become aware of some huge cosmic dark secret, one that was truly horrible and yet totally ironic... The joke was in being forced back into this reality after having it stripped completely from you... Forced back into nothing but limited human perception, and the delusion which it is. I was completely in shock at this point, and I looked at my friends expressing something like, “Why did you show me that?... I didn't want to see that.”

And of course, this leads me to my final, philosophical, objection: either salvia induces enlightenment or enlightenment is just some similar firing of chemicals in the brain, because the rhetoric of both, adjusting for the salvia-user's typically 10th-grade education, is identical. I don't like to think that serious meditators and spiritual seekers spend whole lifetimes longing for union with the divinity only to discover that any idiot highschooler who inhales this smoke can have it whenever he wants.

Convince me I'm wrong about this, that the "ego-death" of salvia is different from the ego-death of many spiritual paths.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

The Second Great Disappointment

Lately, when I talk to technophiles, I detect a strain of optimistically-apocalyptic thinking just beneath the surface of our conversation. It's as if they are too embarrassed to actually say what they're thinking: "Soon, computers will make everything different! We may live forever by uploading our brains!" Some very smart people have actually taken the leap and begun talking about the possibilities of total technological revolution -- phrases like "when humans transcend biology" are gathering attention.

Ray Kurzweil is the brain behind all of this hopefulness, and he certainly has done his share of innovation. As the argument goes, the time is approaching when technological advancement begins to outstrip the pace of evolution -- and possibly even the pace of aging. Kurzweil and his followers call this "the Singularity." Imagine tiny mini-machines cruising through your blood stream cleaning out all of the toxins!

But I read an interesting article here called "What if the Singularity Does NOT Happen?" And I was reminded (attention, Wishydig) me of the history of the Great Disappointment that took place in America in 1844 when the Second Coming did not occur.

So here we go again: eternal life dangled before us and then snatched away! Ach! The injustice! I guess I'm going to start preparing myself in case the Singularity doesn't come.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Toward an Ethics of Seeing, or, Against Underlining

I'm down to about eleven visitors per day at Q-Majin?, which is just about right. Now we can get serious.

At one time or another, most people have read a book closely enough to feel the impulse to underline -- I've even managed to concoct a little system for myself of underlines, double-underlines, check marks, and exaggeratedly huge exclamation points in the margin. Our marginalia is evidence of a process of selection and reveals our personal interests and biases quite intimately (after all, you don't let just anybody read your personal copy of Leaves of Grass). If you've been underlining long enough to revisit an old favorite, you may be surprised to find out just how immature, silly, romantic, or naive your earlier markings seem to be. On a second reading, you might even use a different color pen to denote "second reading," and find yourself underscoring passages that you had missed altogether on a first reading. I've even had occasion to write meta-marginalia, where I comment on my own earlier commentary.

Now consider why we underline. If I remember my first forays into underlining semi-accurately, my intention was to record what I believed to be a special insight so that, in case I revisited the text, I would not miss that special insight. Our underlinings are broken branches or bread crumbs left behind in the woods on the outside chance that we may discover ourselves going round in circles.

But here is my literary turn: underlining is to reading as perception is to life. That is: this process of selection that weaves itself into our reading habits is almost perfectly symmetrical to those habits and preferences that make up our precious personalities--even our identities.

When I am forced (by vocation!) to re-read a single narrative more than a few times, I find that my underlinings become impediments to understanding, rather than helping me to recall special insight. Indeed, my most recent re-read of Moby-Dick effectively involved reading all that I had not previously underlined.

When I first moved to Indiana from Michigan six years ago, I spent a whole weekend driving around my new hometown. Within a month, I knew where all the potholes were on my route to work, and within a year, I had a map of the city laid out with functional accuracy in my memory -- in other words, I had read my town, and underlined my special insights.

But as time goes by I begin to feel a (GRE word alert!) torpor, a general malaise, some pangs of apathy, bouts of ennui. Inevitably, I declare, "This town sucks."

I hope my moral is clear by now, and I will leave the conclusion to the gods of Et cetera. I have wanted to explain the idea of an "ethics of seeing," where "noticing" comes under force of the will. I hope this little essay lays some groundwork. More in the future.

So: stop underlining so much -- or, re-read what you haven't underlined! An example:

Incredibly, I had read Emerson's essay "Circles" at least twice and not underlined this part until just now:
Valor consists in the power of self-recovery, so that a man cannot have his flank turned, cannot be out-generalled, but put him where you will, he stands. This can only be by his preferring truth to his past apprehension of truth; and his alert acceptance of it, from whatever quarter; the intrepid conviction that his laws, his relations to society, his Christianity, his world, may at any time be superseded and decease.
And, hmm... come to think of it, maybe I won't underline it just now.