Thursday, August 20, 2009

Full Draft Order

Round One
1 Rob A Peterson
2 Andy M Turner
3 Karissa M Jones-Drew
4 Joe R Moss
5 Craig A Johnson
6 Tim M Forte
7 Sadie F Gore

Round Two

10 Sadie L Fitzgerald
11 Tim S Jackson
12 Craig W Welker
13 Joe P Manning
14 Karissa D Brees
15 Andy L Tomlinsom
16 Rob C Johnson

Round Three
17 Rob D Williams
18 Andy T Brady
19 Karissa S Smith
20 Joe C Johnson
21 Craig T Gonzalez
22 Tim G Jennings
23 Sadie B Westbrook


26 Sadie R Wayne
27 Tim A Rodgers
28 Craig K Warner
29 Joe M Barber
30 Karissa B Jacobs
31 Andy M Colston
32 Rob R White

Round Five
33 Rob R Grant
34 Andy A Boldin
35 Karissa D Bowe
36 Joe T Owens
37 Craig Steeler Defense
38 Tim B Marshall
39 Sadie T Romo

Round Six
42 Sadie C Ochocinco
43 Tim T Houshmandzedah
44 Craig S Gostkowski
45 Joe A Gates
46 Karissa J Witten
47 Andy L Johnson
48 Rob G Olsen

Round Seven
49 Rob B Favre
50 Andy P Rivers
51 Karissa A Bryant
52 Joe B Berrian
53 Craig M Ryan
54 Tim D Clark
55 Sadie Minnesota D

Round Eight
58 Sadie C Portis
59 Tim L Evans
60 Craig C Cooley
61 Joe P Thomas
62 Karissa V Jackson
63 Andy T Holt
64 Rob R Bush

Round Nine
65 Rob V Shiancoe
66 Andy H Ward
67 Karissa S Slaton
68 Joe B Edwards
69 Craig W Parker
70 Tim Giants D
71 Sadie R Williams

Round Ten
74 Sadie R Brown
75 Tim K Smith
76 Craig F Jones
77 Joe J Addai
78 Karissa Ravens D
79 Andy L White
80 Rob D Driver

Round Eleven
81 Rob R Longwell
82 Andy Z Miller
83 Karissa J Stewart
84 Joe A Gonzalez
85 Craig M Lynch
86 Tim D Akers
87 Sadie O Daniels

Round Twelve
90 Sadie J Cutler
91 Tim D McNabb
92 Craig D Sproles
93 Joe D Jackson
94 Karissa R Bironas
95 Andy Charger D
96 Rob Packer D

Round Thirteen
97 Rob D McFadden
98 Andy A Vinatieri
99 Karissa K Winslow
100 Joe C Taylor
101 Craig Cowboy D
102 Tim S Holmes
103 Sadie P Harvin

Round Fourteen
106 Sadie E Royal
107 Tim K Boss
108 Craig B Roethlisberger
109 Joe M Schaub
110 Karissa J Delhomme
111 Andy H Nicks
112 Rob D Hester

Round Fifteen
113 Rob J Finley
114 Andy T Jones
115 Karissa K Walter
116 Joe M Crosby
117 Craig S Moss
118 Tim J Cotchery
119 Sadie D Ward

Round Sixteen
122 Sadie N Folk
123 Tim K Moreno
124 Craig T Ginn
125 Joe Titan D
126 Karissa Eagle D
127 Andy J Shockey
128 Rob C Benson

Total Roster Spots: 16
Starting Lineup Spots: QB, WR, WR, RB, TE, WR/TE, WR/RB, K, D/ST
Fractional Points: Yes
Negative Points: No

Passing Yards 50 yards per point
Passing Touchdowns 3
Rushing Yards 20 yards per point
Rushing Touchdowns 6
Reception Yards 20 yards per point
Reception Touchdowns 6
Return Touchdowns 6
2-Point Conversions 2
Offensive Fumble Return TD 6

Field Goals 3
Point After Attempt Made 1

Defense/Special Teams
Sack 1
Interception 1
Fumble Recovery 1
Touchdown 6
Safety 4
Kickoff and Punt Return Touchdowns 6
Points Allowed 0 points 6
Points Allowed 1-6 points 4
Points Allowed 7-13 points 2

Summary of Cross Country Scoring

Each week, you are not competing in a head-t0-head matchup; you are competing against every team in the league.

It's very simple. The top-scoring team of the week beats every other team, and thus goes 7-0. The second-highest scoring team beat every team but one, and goes 6-1. Yada yada yada, all the way down to the lowest scoring team of the week, which goes 0-7.

#1: 7-0
#2: 6-1
#3: 5-2
#4: 4-3
#5: 3-4
#6: 2-5
# 7: 1-6
#8: 0-7

For the overall standings, we add up the wins and losses from each week, and the team with the most wins is the league champion. In the case of a tie, total points will be the tie-breaker.

This is a fair and extremely fun way to do the standings: if you want to know more about why, I've explained here, here, and here.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

A note on the new blog

For any readers interested in the content of this blog who don't want to sift through the inane and silly posts at the new blog, you may be interested in strictly following the "culture" label at "That's how we do it in the T.C."  Here's the link.   Whenever I write the sort of post that would have shown up at this blog, I'll label it "Culture," and it will show up under that specific URL.  For example, a very brief post on how Falstaff reminds me of Jerry, Kramer, and George.

A new blogging adventure

Life changes and blogging changes.  I'm starting a new blog:

Here is the blog's introduction.

At the new blog, I'll still make my attempts to discuss literature and ideas.  But I don't want to compartmentalize my various interests into three different blogs anymore.  The posts on literature and ideas will be mixed in with sports posts (cross-posted at Pacifist Viking), comments on advertisements, bad television, consumerism, parenthood, Twin Cities life, and other various topics that amuse me (and I hope not me alone).  A lot of the posts will be short and inane (sort of like this one), and there may be a lot more brief links.

I'm still not quite sure what I'll be doing with this site; I've flirted with a few different ideas.  I'll keep it up on the possibility I return to it (and I'll still use it to check the links I've got on the side).  But I like fresh starts, and this new venture energizes me.

It's been fun, and it will stay fun at a new URL combined with a bunch of other funky stuff.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Underlying Axioms

a contrapuntal essay

Several times since the Michael Vick dogfighting scandal emerged, a public figure has compared dog fighting to deer hunting, suggesting the two activities aren't that different. This comparison usually elicits mainstream outrage, as hunters (and others) talk about how different the two activities are. At my sports blog, I've sometimes expressed the belief that the two activities are similar, which sometimes elicits reasoned objections (and sometimes angry objections).

The reason I find the activities similar is because the same axiom underlies both activities: humans may use and kill animals for our own pleasure. Deer hunters can point out the differences between the acts (often focusing on the differing levels of suffering, pain, cruelty, and motive), but I'm stuck on the axiom. Once you accept the axiom that humans may use and kill animals for our own pleasure, if you separate deer hunting from dog fighting, you are arguing about degrees. And once you start acting on that axiom, you are also going to have excesses of degree following the same axiom.

The same problem is true for many types of violence, I suppose. Once you accept the axiom that war is sometimes justified and necessary, all it takes to wage the war you want to wage is to convince people that the particular war is justified and necessary. John Howard Yoder has pointed out that when other theologians speak generally negatively about warfare, there is a palpable sense of relief from the audience when the theologian acknowledges that sometimes, in very rare circumstances, because of exceptional circumstances, war is sometimes justified and necessary. Once you accept that premise, even if you try limit that justification/necessity with extremely specific rules, with a very narrow, specific, and limited application of Just War Theory, you're going to have people justifying war, and feeling they can do so within your own standards.

Sometimes ideological opponents recognize in each other the acceptance of differing axioms, and thus argue with the knowledge of irreconcilable differences. Sometimes ideological opponents argue about the degrees, ignoring or failing to understand the axioms. Either way, opponents often fail to understand how the other side can possibly see things so differently.

Is this discussion at all relevant in how we approach art and literature? Perhaps, though you may see this as a strain. When we come to respect, admire, even revere a particular artist, we may start to give him/her the benefit of the doubt. What if I watched Australia without the knowledge that Baz Luhrmann directed it? What if I watched Sour Grapes without the knowledge that Larry David made it? I doubt I would have patience with A Maggot if John Fowles weren't the author. But once I accept that an artist knows what he/she is up to, I'm willing to try and see what he/she is doing. It is a stretch, but once I've accepted the premise John Fowles is a great novelist, I'm willing to read any novel he writes as the work of a great novelist (I might ask my friend RK: could you ever dislike a Woody Allen movie even if you did?).

Perhaps less of a stretch is how readers might accept the axioms of a particular literary theory, then be able to always apply that theory to any work. It's a bit of a joke that if you read with Psychoanalytical Theory, everything becomes a phallic symbol. But if you accept any literary theory's axioms, you can start to see everything according to the axiom.

Just as significant to the discussion is the rejection of a particular literary theory. If you reject a particular theory (say, Queer Theory), convinced it has nothing relevant to offer you, you may never see anything that calls for it. If you refuse to see any homoeroticism between Ishmael and Queequeg, then of course you will not see it. If you reject an axiom, you may never see anything useful in it, and may never see a reason to apply it. I try to see something useful in almost any literary theory, while at the same time not adhering strictly to any one approach.

But that's for literature--as a vegetarian and pacifist, clearly I'm willing to embrace (or reject) an axiom that underlies and limits my behaviors and ethical decisions.

Well, contrapuntal, but shitty.

Sunday, May 31, 2009


Baz Luhrmann will never make an easy film. He's capable of incredible visual beauty on screen, and he won't hold back: he'll take courageous risks to show it. His films are all raging excess.

Australia has all the sincere sentimentality of the Red Curtain Trilogy, but little of the narrative playfulness and none of the humor. It has the musical power, but not the flair. I can't say I had ever wondered what would happen if the artist of Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, and Moulin Rouge ever decided to do a Western, or an historical epic, or an action movie, or a war movie, but Luhrmann went ahead and did all of that at once. But there it is, that excess, part of what makes Luhrmann my favorite director. I admire the way the films of the Red Curtain trilogy spill over, not able to be contained by what they are. Australia doesn't spill over; it fully takes on the essence of what it is (or better, all the things it is). It is not as good as Luhrmann's other films, but I still admire the art.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Twin Cities Art (summer family tours)

Spoonbridge and Cherry is always gorgeous in person, and the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden is a wonderful place to go for a walk with a family.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Stephen King: Experimentalist?

I wonder if Stephen King will at some point get credit as an experimental novelist. In Desperation and The Regulators, King does something I've never seen before: he tells different but similar stories, in a different setting, but with the same characters (playing different roles with differing levels of significance) and a similar villain. Or perhaps he could be credited with bringing some literary innovations to popular fiction, as in the narrative form of From a Buick Eight, or the metafiction of the Dark Tower series.

King's prose has greatly improved throughout the course of his writing career, in my opinion, and more and more he's playing around with structure, narration, and style. King's writing may be more craft than art, but he is a master craftsman.

Twin Cities Museums (summer family tours)

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts is obviously terrific, but I've really been digging the Target wing.

The Museum of Russian Art is small but terrific; I always recommend visiting.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

not a post about my syllabi

Creating a syllabus can be a lonely part of teaching. It requires intense engagement, requires focused creativity, and it often involves great excitement. Yet it's pretty much you and the syllabus here: if you try bothering to tell people about the little enthusiasms and frustrations, the progress and the choices, the difficult decisions and the joyful optimism, they'll be (rightfully) bored and uninterested.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Dramatic Performance

Reading Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author

All drama is metafiction
, is the declarative statement I thought to make.  Not that all drama is about drama, but that all drama is intensely self-aware, overtly and constantly aware of itself as performance.  I've never read nor seen a play that wasn't knowingly performative, and am not sure I'd like to.  Perhaps it is inevitable that drama has a long tradition of knowing gestures toward the audience.

But I'm not sure that makes drama particularly special. All literature is knowingly performative, in the writer's creative work as a performance to be viewed and in the reader's awareness of being performed to.  

And then I'm not sure that makes literature particularly special.  Everyday life is filled with performative acts (is telling a story a performance?  When something interesting happens, do you think ahead to how you'll tell others about it?).  Many careers are performative (teaching, as an obvious and personal example), as are many of the roles we take on in our lives.  A religious service is usually a scripted performance (is it terribly surprising that drama was reborn in Europe through church plays?), as are the various rituals we use to mark moments of transitions (graduations, weddings).

Perhaps this leaves drama is the most artificial of life's performances, the most inauthentic.  Or perhaps this makes drama, with its deep focus on performance itself, the premiere literary genre.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

"Everything is permitted."

a contrapuntal essay of speculations on a morality of "human dignity" based on conversations with my brother.

I mostly believe in this premise: If there is no God, then everything is permitted. It is not because without God there is no ultimate punishment/reward for our behavior (in which case morality would essentially be based on self-preservation); it is that if the universe and human existence exist strictly as a matter of hazard, then there is no inherent meaning in anything, and no inherent value in anything. We can assign meaning and value, of course (and do), but it would not exist inherently.

As a Christian, I believe each and every individual has inherent dignity, and must be treated as such. But why is it, then, that those with a primarily secular worldview (including atheists and agnostics) are more likely to share my beliefs on inherent human dignity than most Christian believers? On almost any social issue, I'm more likely to agree with a secular humanist than a Christian (such as, say, gay marriage). Particularly, on issues of violence (such as opposition to warfare, torture, capital punishment), my views are strongly connected to this belief in inherent human dignity. On these issues, secular humanists are more likely to share my views than Christians are.

What is going on? Am I actually a secular humanist who just also believes in God? It's possible, but I would like to propose another theory, not based on evidence but speculative possibility.

The beliefs that many have about human dignity (or, if you prefer, human rights) developed out of a Western cultural tradition that does include religious values. Of course this cultural tradition has not always given a fig about human dignity (slavery, oppression of women, etc.), but something in this tradition includes progress toward equal rights and human rights. Some of these values emerge from religious traditions. However, for many religious-minded people, these values come with the religion, but are not primary to the religion. For example, Christianity may come with values of nonviolence and compassion for the poor, but the primary concern of Christianity is personal salvation for the believer and God's ultimate plan of salvation for the world. Thus what matters to many Christians is the "ends," which may encourage a way of thinking that allows one to believe "The ends justify the means." It is partly that concern with the particular Christian ends allows one not to focus on the values/morals, because those are not the ends. But it is also a mental structure: thinking of the ends as a primary concern on a religious issue can make one think of the ends on other problems as the primary concern, and thus abhorrent means can be justified to achieve those ends.

So what happens if you are influenced from your environment--if you emerge from this cultural tradition--but leave behind the teleological framework? If a Christian worldview focuses on and endgame but has values that come with it, and you remove the belief in the endgame, you are left with the values.

This is my speculation: I share values with secular humanists because like them, I'm focused on the values, not the endgame.

But why, when it comes to values of "life," do many Christians (notably Catholics) make abortion the "trump" issue? Many will only vote for political candidates opposed to abortion, which does make them vote for candidates who may support the death penalty, support massive military spending, and oppose policies that might be justified from a Christian perspective (such as action on climate change, a demand of stewardship, or on economic justice, a major subject of Jesus' words). I do have a theory. I think that some forms of Christianity generally support the existing social order, the existing power structure. It is in the instincts of many of these voters to preserve the status quo, to resist change. They are lower c conservatives, and are inclined to support conservative candidates. Focusing on abortion as a life issue, and ignoring or diminishing other just as pressing life issues, allows them to justify voting for the candidates they want to vote for anyway--even candidates whose policies might be opposed to other Christian values.

Anyway, I think this is why I must call myself a Christian humanist. I am a Christian that primarily shares values with secular humanists.

(most of my contrapuntal essays don't start off intending to be that, but become something like that when I get writing and see tangents.)

Friday, May 15, 2009

Thursday, May 14, 2009

downpour: caffeine and carbs

for pouring down the schoolish-bookish things on my mind; not developed or interesting, but sort of necessary mental precipitation.  The caffeine is still coursing around my body, after all.

Because that's what I need for end-of-the-year marathon grading: caffeine to keep my mind alert for mornings and late nights, and carbs to keep my body full so I can focus.  And now it's done.  I power through because I can't focus on much else but grading during this period (I twice left the oven on.  TWICE!  I'm so focused on grading that when I'm doing something else, I'm thinking about grading, and then I rush away from that something else to be able to return to grading.  It's best for everybody if I just focus and finish so that I can move on--the obsessive-compulsive tendencies and all), and I'm big on fresh, new beginnings, which summer always offers.

Wise Structure
In my comp class, I made a change and assigned the difficult research paper as the penultimate assignment.  This moved the intensely difficult grading a bit earlier in the semester, so that final grading was a lot smoother.  But there was another surprising effect that may be more important.  In the past I've assigned the most difficult paper last, and recently plagiarism has been a major problem.  It has been a far smaller problem this semester.  I surmise that the stress and time constraints at the very end of the semester make plagiarism on a difficult assignment more likely, and that moving the difficult assignment just a month earlier greatly reduces this temptation.  I think I will keep this in mind when planning future courses.

Return of Health
In the last month and a half I've been far too lax on the mostly veganism (still eating loads of fruits and vegetables, just adding too much cheese and chocolate, too); the start of summer will find me returning to a mostly vegan lifestyle.  I'll also get to return to a more consistent walking schedule; things have been a little too hectic lately (my wife had our second child two weeks ago), but now that the semester is over I should be able to take at least one arbitrary walk per day, and hopefully two to four. 

Of course I'll take a few days off, but I am super excited to start preparing for next fall's classes.  I'm remaking a gen ed lit course and a freshman comp course with new texts, and I'm really optimistic and energized about the process.

Summer Reading
I'll probably be reading a lot of poetry this summer; I'd want to for fun of course, but since I'm creating a new lit syllabus for fall, every poem I read could be a poem I teach, too.  I also hope to read a lot of drama, non-fiction, and short stories, probably staying away from novels for a little while.

Work Space
Another task for summer is to create a good home work space.  I grade papers on a card table, and carry other school materials around to wherever I am in the house.  I want to get a desk and start organizing my materials so that I have a good, clean work space.  A clean well-lighted place, if you will.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Ends and Means

a contrapuntal essay

The problem of using "ends justify the means" logic to defend torture is that virtually every war criminal believes some threat is strong enough, or some perceived "good" important enough, that the atrocity committed is justified.

At Reason, Jim Henley shreds the utilitarian argument for torture (via The Edge of the American West, where dana does a good job exposing the "ticking timebomb" scenario as a fantasy for "thought experiments," not a real situation for the real world). Henley presents the familiar "you have a terrorist in custody who knows where a bomb is hidden, and many innocent lives are at stake" scenario. But Henley twists the hypothetical's rules:

"But you’re also sure this particular terrorist is a pervert! And he tells you that if you’ll rape your own child in front of him, he’ll tell you exactly where the bomb is and how to disarm it. And you’re sure that he will, because your intelligence is that good in exactly that way."

Henley then exposes

"the real misdirection of the ticking bomb scenario. It’s always presented as a 'What would you do?' dilemma, but in truth it has nothing to do with you. The proper question is: 'What should we allow officials embedded in the security bureaucracy to do with impunity? What shall we let their bosses order without legal repercussion?'"

I'm reminded of John Howard Yoder's What Would You Do?, where Yoder exposes some of the assumptions within the "If a violent person is attacking your family, wouldn't you use violence to stop him?" question? Conflating some of Yoder's ideas with some of my own, here are some assumptions inherent to that question.

One assumption: Your violent defense will be successful. If a violent person (presumably armed) is attacking my family, why on earth would I assume that I could violently defend them? My attempt would likely fail, and quite possibly make things worse.

Another assumption: A violent defense is your only option. Could I consider sacrificing myself to save my family? Could I try mount a distraction to allow my family to escape? Could I try talking to the person?

Another assumption: This hypothetical can be used to justify a large-scale war. That's absurd. Even assuming you are using this hypothetical to justify a defensive war, the more accurate hypothetical would be "If a violent person were running through a crowd to try and hurt your family, would you throw a grenade into the crowd to stop the person?"

Literature offers exploration of ends and means, too.

In John Fowles' The Magus, Conchis is ordered by a Nazi to bludgeon a man to death; if he doesn't, a whole crowd of innocent people will be executed. As Conchis approaches the man, the man speaks the word "eleutheria," the Greek word for freedom. Conchis sees in this Nazi resister "every freedom, from the very worst to the very best." He sees that:

"I was the only person left in that square who had the freedom left to choose, and that the annunciation and defence of that freedom was more important than common sense, self-preservation, yes, than my own life, than the lives of the eighty hostages."

In The Magus, Fowles presents an existentialist dilemma: Conchis rejects utilitarian reasoning in order to assert his own "freedom."

I've written about utilitarianism in Graham Greene's The Quiet American before. Fowler finds Pyle's utilitarianism abhorrent. Pyle is willing to sacrifice many lives to his value of democracy; he sees these lives as acceptable "means" to achieve an "end." In order to stop Pyle, Fowler contributes to Pyle's death: in other words, Fowler is willing to view Pyle as an means, too. He weighs Pyle's life against the lives that Pyle would be responsible for taking in the future, and makes a utilitarian decision. Of course, the fact that Fowler and Pyle are rivals for the same woman complicates the simplicity of this decision.

Literature also offers us an example of the ethical way to respond to torture and following orders. In King Lear, while the sadistic Cornwall is poking out the eyes of Gloucester, one of his servants objects, trying to make his master stop. From his lowly position, this is an act of disobedience. But he sees an atrocity being committed, and attempts to intervene rather than be complicit. He is unable to help Gloucester, and he is killed for his troubles; perhaps, however, he saves his soul. And if I were ever to direct King Lear (I'd like to imagine the twists of chance and life that would lead that to happen, but I can't), I know how my production would have Gloucester appear during this scene:

image from Wikipedia

(This is closer to what I would like my contrapuntal writing to be. Instead of a unified, developed thesis, one idea leads to a somewhat related idea and so on, finding unexpected connections and not developing a point in a systematic direction, but exploring it in a flexible way. I'm not where I want to be with it, but I'm getting there).


--this post grows out of a frustration with seeing "It works" used as a justification for torture, as if the effectiveness of great cruelty justifies great cruelty (or, if you prefer, you can replace "cruelty" with ILLEGAL ACTS). If you are trying to stop a window salesman from knocking on your door once a month, kicking him in the stomach is cruel (and illegal) regardless of whether "it works."

--perhaps I should explain: I would not use images of Abu Ghraib in a production of King Lear to try and make a political point (which would be both incoherent and obvious). It would be an aesthetic choice to connect with the audience. It would be an attempt to make the cruelty of the scene (and play) familiar to the audience, rather than distant.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Environmentalism and Religion: "the child is father of the man"

a contrapuntal essay

"It is understandable that Luther could have found this preoccupation [with personal self-acceptance] in the apostolic message since it was his own question. [...] It was also perfectly natural for a John Wesley, a Kierkegaard, or today for an existentialist or a conservative evangelical reader to make the same assumption and find the same message--for all of these are in their variegated ways children of Luther, still asking the same question of personal guilt and righteousness."
--John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus

In some strains of Christianity, you may find a human-centered chauvinist attitude toward the natural world.  The thinking seems to go that since humans are the pinnacle of creation, the rest of the created world exists for whatever humans wish to use it for.  There is, then, a divinely sanctioned human "dominion" over the rest of creation (this way of thinking may be opposed by the concept of "stewardship"--essentially the idea that God made all of creation for himself, and humans are caretakers.  In this way of thinking, nature has transcendent purpose, and humans have a moral obligation to care for creation.  I commend the concept of "stewardship" for finding in nature if not "inherent" value, then a value wholly separate from humankind's utilitarian use of it).

This religious human-centered attitude toward the environment actually eases into secular human-centered attitudes toward the environment (or do these secular views emerge from the religious thought?).  In one business-friendly strain, what matters is human benefit, and if the environment is damaged for the economic interests of humans (or corporations, or governments), so be it--what matters is human use.  Another strain can suggest that humans, as the most advanced species, have an inherent right to use the lower species for whatever purposes humans want.  As Harold Herzog writes in "Human Morality and Animal Research: Confessions and Quandaries," "Research with animals is based on the premise that a 'superior' species has the right to breed, kidnap, or kill members of 'lesser' species for the advancement of knowledge."

I think it possible that these secular arguments about human use of nature (including animals) may develop from the same historical strain as Christianity's arguments about human use of nature (including animals).  The child may be father to the man.

One might think that "Environmentalism" is an alternative, or a corrective, or in opposition to, a religious-based human-centered attitude toward the environment.  But this is not always the case.  It seems to me that some (I won't say many) environmentalists maintain human-centered chauvinist attitudes toward the natural world.  Some environmentalists view the natural world as worth protecting and preserving--so that humans can continue to use it.  What environmentalists? Environmentalists that eat meat.

If you claim to be an environmentalist but still think animals can be killed for your pleasure, then whom are you really trying to save the environment for?  You're not trying to save the environment for the animals (you probably don't see inherent value in the animal, if you are willing to eat it for your pleasure).  And you probably don't see inherent value in the natural world outside of human use.  Environmentalism can maintain this chauvinism, can still see humankind in a power-relationship over the natural world.  Secular environmentalists can still believe in human "dominion" over the rest of the natural world, can still see humans in a position of control, capable of using any part of the natural world (including animals) for our own purposes.  It is worth preserving the environment, not for its inherent value, but for its value to humans.

The child is father of the man.

Carol Ann Duffy: poet laureate of Britain

I adore Duffy's collection The World's Wife, and am pleased to see her receive such an honor.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Poetry in Life

The first lines of poetry I spoke to my new son were from William Wordsworth: "My heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky."

Sunday, April 26, 2009

How you know you are an English teacher nearing the end of a term

When you stop grading papers in order to prep for class, and it feels like "taking a break."

Friday, April 24, 2009

downpour: blogging helps improve my teaching.

If this blog is a  journal of what I'm reading and thinking about, then that helps my teaching.  With my comp students, I promote the value of informal prewriting exercises: forcing ourselves to work out our thoughts in writing certainly allows us to articulate our thoughts, but also allows us sharper clarity of thought.  By making an effort to write about literature and ideas, I'm clarifying and articulating my own thoughts.  Since a lot of my reading is for class, writing my thoughts certainly sharpens my teaching.  Furthermore, in the past year I read The French Lieutenant's Woman and The Namesake for pleasure, not directly for academic work.  I also blogged about some of my thoughts about reading these works.  Now I'm planning on teaching them in a lit course next fall--suddenly the extended time not just reading these books, but thinking about them and writing about them, perhaps contributed to my decision to include them, and certainly helps me prepare to teach them.

But it's not just the writing on this blog that helps me, but the reading.  I regularly check most of the links on the side.  That means I'm constantly learning about what books people are reading, what people think about particular books, how people are experiencing reading, current issues in literature, current issues in academia, how other teachers are approaching their work, contemporary theoretical issues, contemporary academic topics, etc. etc. etc.  Using these links as my regular reading list keeps me informed on subjects relevant to my teaching, as well as ideas that can be incorporated into my teaching.

Or is this what I try tell myself?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Marxist Reading

In "Going Boom" at bookforum, Walter Benn Michaels has, I believe, some strong insights.  My main problem with the essay is the assumption that it is the duty of literature (or literary criticism, or literary study, or simply reading) to explore and expose the problems of the free market.  First, aren't there better areas of inquiry more suited to this project?  Economics, Journalism, Political Science--it seems there are fields that would do a much better job with that project than writers of literature.  Second, I'm skeptical that more novels like American Psycho or more television shows like The Wire are really going to foster anything like a revolution or reform of the free market system.

But it seems Michaels also views the primary concern of human beings as our material conditions, and thus what we read should reflect that concern.  I think, given that much of our lives is devoted to those material conditions, that when we read we perhaps should devote our attention to "something else," whether that be pleasure, or spiritual fulfillment, or self-knowledge, or personal growth, or intellectual curiosity, or any of many, many human concerns that are not about the economic system. I might agree with Harold Bloom when he writes, "Do not attempt to improve your neighbor or your neighborhood by what or how you read. Self-improvement is a large enough project for your mind and spirit." 

(via Dissent)

Monday, April 20, 2009

downpour: some things I'm teaching

Avoiding Staleness
I'm very excited that next fall, I'll be including John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman and Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake in my gen ed lit syllabus. I feel like including these novels makes the course my own. I'm also not assigning any books that feature poetry; instead, I'll be creating my own poetry reading list through digital attachments and online links. And I'm also changing texts for my comp class, again simply because I feel the old text was getting stale and dated. This certainly adds work to the summer, but I think it is well worth it. I want to be energized by what I teach, and think I'll do a better job teaching it if I am.

In "Obedience," Ian Parker writes "It's hard not to think of Stanley Milgram in another set of circumstances--to imagine the careers he did not have in films or in the theatre," and quotes from Milgram from a letter: "I should not be here, but in Greece shooting films under a Mediterranean sun, hopping about in a small boat from one Aegean isle to the next."

I find this remarkably unsurprising, and think the same thought could apply to Philip Zimbardo and his Stanford Prison Experiment (for some reason, in my imagination Zimbardo appears like the "impresario" artist at the end of The French Lieutenant's Woman). Parker and Zimbardo are psychologists that appear to view themselves as something like artists. And perhaps, from Freud on forward, it is psychology with an artistic bent that most frequently forces its way into the popular imagination.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

On the Commodification of Peace

At We Have Mixed Feelings About Sven Sundgaard, a mostly silly blog where I sometimes examine consumer life, I discuss the consumer fashion appeal of the Peace Symbol.


Using "the end justifies the means" logic leads to an obvious problem. If you believe nefarious means can be justified by a desired end, then you would be willing to use nearly any means to achieve ends you deem very important, and you will use absolutely any means to achieve ends you deem absolutely necessary. But if you do so, the only thing that separates you (whom you consider good) from your enemy (whom you consider evil) is the desirability, nobility, morality, goodness of the ends. Horrible atrocities have been perpetrated by those that believed so strongly their ends were just/right/desirable that they were willing to kill to achieve those ends.

In history there have been those (such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi) who believed their moral superiority to their enemies must exist in the means, not just the ends. John Howard Yoder's understanding of Christ in The Politics of Jesus also suggests a leader (with social/political ends) who insisted on using a moral means.

Religion does not provide a clear direction. Too often religious motivations have led humans to murderous means to achieve the ends they view their religion demands. And sometimes it is religion that leads humans to recognize a moral demand, a "higher law," which extends beyond the desirability of the end that humans have in view. So religion can lead humans to treat other humans as "means" to be used for transcendent purposes, but religion can also insist on transcendent purposes which forbid certain evil means to achieve human ends.

There is little doubt that torture denies the dignity of the one being tortured. Torture insists that the tortured person is simply a means, a means to be used to achieve the torturer's end. The tortured person does not have inherent value; the value of the tortured person is only his/her value to the torturer. Humans distort, limit, and deny each others' inherent dignity all the time, but violence is perhaps the most intentional, outright, egregious denial.

Friday, April 17, 2009

"Trifles" as a metaphor for canon formation

Those in power get to determine what matters, what is important, what is worth time and exploration, as well as what is less significant, not important, "trifling."

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Ethical Decisions of Imaginary Characters

I'm not afraid to ask students whether the fictional characters we encounter do "the right thing."  I do think sometimes this question can help us better understand the particular text.  But I also don't think a literature class is an inappropriate setting to challenge students about ethics and values.

In Susan Glaspell's play "Trifles," two women cover up evidence that would help convict a murderer.   I will ask: did the women do the right thing?  At the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Chief Bromden kills (the lobotomized) McMurphy.  Again I will ask: was Chief Bromden's action ethical?  Certainly the contexts of both these works push a read toward a particular answer, but I still find the discussion engaging and fruitful.  I think these may be the sort of questions students want to engage with; perhaps young adulthood is a time when people find themselves both open to exploring such questions and deeply invested in these questions.

Gratuitous Link

Matt Richtel's "If Only Literature Could Be a Cellphone-Free Zone" in The New York Times.

I've thought the same thing while watching Seinfeld (just a decade later, some of their plots and situations would be wrapped up with a cell phone) and horror movies (since the essence of many horror scenes is isolation, writers may need to find a way to get rid of a character's cell phone: dying batteries, broken phones, locations without connection, etc.).

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

2,400 year old dirty jokes

Here is my pattern for teaching Lysistrata:

1. Before the semester, make a syllabus including Lysistrata.  It seems like a good idea at the time.

2. A few weeks before Lysistrata is scheduled, look at the syllabus and think "How are we supposed to talk about that?"

3. During the time that Lysistrata is scheduled, spend my free moments fretting up ways to get through class.

4. After we're finished with Lysistrata, and our coverage of it in class goes reasonably well (it usually does), think "Well, that went well: we actually raised some good, important issues that are extremely relevant to this class."

5. Lose all notes taken for this preparation, and forget everything that I did that seemed to work well.*

6. Prepare a lit syllabus for the next semester including Lysistrata: it seems like a good idea at the time.

*I'm working on eliminating this step.

Gratuitous Link

Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson's The Face on Your Plate: The Truth About Food reviewed at The New York Times.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Torrential Downpour: scattered thoughts on pacifism and vegetarianism.

Unpredictability of War
David Samuels' "Why Israel Will Bomb Iran: The rational argument for an attack" in Slate illustrates one of the problems of war. Samuels makes a lot of predictions about what would happen if Israel bombed Iran. Most of these results appear as positives. But almost any act of war can seem sensible when justifying it by predicted results (especially if the war proponent is the one predicting such results). But nearly every act of war brings about unforeseen, unpredictable results. It is the unpredicted results that are often longterm negative results of acts of war.

Orwell against Tolstoy
In James Wood's "A Fine Rage: George Orwell's revolutions" in The New Yorker (abstract), Wood recounts Orwell's opposition to Tolstoy. The matter seems to be about "soft power:"

"The distinction that really matters is not between violence and non-violence, but between having and not having the appetite for power." The example he appends is an interesting one: when a father threatens his son with "You'll get a thick ear if you do that again," coercion is palpable. But, Orwell writes, what of the mother who lovingly murmurs, "Now, darling, is it kind to Mummy to do that?" The mother wants to contaminate her son's brain. Tolstoy did not propose that "King Lear" be banned or censored, Orwell says; instead, when he wrote his polemic against Shakespeare, he tried to contaminate our pleasure in the play. For Orwell, "Creeds like pacifism and anarchism, which seem on the surface to imply a complete renunciation of power, rather encourage this habit of mind."

Surely the problem of Orwell's argument is obvious. In a free society, if Tolstoy tries to badger me into hating King Lear, I'm free to resist. In fact, I have two forms of "soft" resistance at my disposal: I can either argue against Tolstoy, or I can ignore him. But if Tolstoy starts punching and kicking me because I enjoy King Lear, that is another thing altogether. The key distinction is, in fact, between violence and non-violence.

Sanctity of Life
Today at the church I attended for Easter service, there was a prayer that included a desire to embrace a "culture of life," followed by some specifics, including concern for the unborn. And I wondered: if everybody in America that opposed abortion on the grounds of the sanctity of human life, also opposed war on the very same grounds, we might not have any more aggressive foreign wars. The same thought could probably extend to the death penalty.

That's the problem of this "culture of life" business--which life, in fact, is of concern? Opponents of abortion usually don't share the same political (or cultural?) affiliations with opponents of capital punishment or opponents of militarism/warfare (and I'll limit to a parenthetical the observation that in most contexts, when people argue over "life," the concern is limited, of course, to human life).

Paradigms of Thought: Animal Rights
When I read articles about animal rights, I consistently come across the word "suffering." It is apparent that for many animal rights advocates, "suffering" is the paradigm which grounds their beliefs. Many of the arguments against humans using animals for our benefit are framed around the animals' suffering (arguments for the animals' capacity to suffer, or arguments on the conditions which lead animals to suffer). It is certainly not the only paradigm (the question "do humans have a right to use animals?" is not dependent on animal suffering), but it is a significant one.

I must admit that the suffering paradigm does not ground my vegetarianism; for me the paradigm is personal moral integrity. It is not the suffering of animals that motivates me precisely. I attempt to avoid moral complicity in the deaths of animals. I've suggested in the past that it is the religious thrust of my mind that made me a vegetarian: it is a religious desire to live a compassionate life and a religious desire to preserve personal moral integrity (it is not with mock humility that I note my constant failure in both these areas).

I make these observations on paradigms of belief without intended judgment. These are some of the thoughts that arise when I ask myself why I am vegetarian and not vegan. It is possible that either paradigm will, at some point, push me toward a strict veganism. At the moment, however, they have not.

Moral Arguments on Meat
I have been thinking of developing a post with the sentence "I've never heard a good moral argument for eating meat." But I think I could take out the "good," and simply say "I've never heard a moral argument for eating meat." Certainly I've heard many "defenses" or "justifications" for animal consumption. But nobody can really raise the argument that consuming meat is a morally superior choice to abstaining from consuming meat. I come back to a rational claim: if you eat meat, you are choosing your own pleasure over the life of the animal. It is difficult to make this choice and still claim it as a moral choice.

And you should see how I hold a fork

In The New York Times, Calvin Trillin speculates on whether he is "an uncultured oaf."

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Imagining Lear

While teaching King Lear, I find myself entirely immersed in it: reading it, talking about it, thinking about it, watching it.  In my free, dreamy moments, Lear comes to mind.  And I considered revisiting ideas about imaginary characters, about the human capacity to imagine that which isn't, about how non-existent characters are imagined by an author, re-imagined by a reader, and take on an authentic realness from the creativity of the human imagination.

And while thinking about how I imagine Lear, I recognize that the image I have of Lear is built out of various sources.  But when I imagine Lear talking, the voice I often hear is that of my grandfather.  And Lear's character and personality, his mannerisms and his emotions, are formed by my ideas of my grandpa.

And I think that the human capacity to imagine is nearly limitless, yet that imagination is built and perpetually fueled by already existent material.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Highlight of the Semester

Once a semester I tend to write on here about what a moving, invigorating, emotional, and joyous experience it is to teach King Lear.  I hope I never tire of teaching this play.

Friday, April 03, 2009

I do, after all, have a "stupid" tag

I am very liberal; I know this because a Facebook quiz told me so.  But when reading literature, my impulses are sometimes what might be called conservative: in respect for the Western canon and tradition, in a willingness to just go ahead and say a Shakespearean character is evil, in a desire for spiritual fulfillment or moral edification in literature.  I don't know what this means.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Stupid Summer Project: The Statue

Jerry: Kramer?  Kramer?  It's Jerry.  Jerry!  From next door.  Nevermind where I am.  Yes, Jerry Seinfeld!

Kramer: Just make love to that wall, pervert.

Comment: The early season episodes really get at the tragicomic destiny of George Costanza.  He finds an object that will redeem a mistake from his past, loses the object, gains it back after an ordeal, only to see it break in the stupidest way possible.  

This episode features a common motif of the show: the conflicting self-interest of friends.  When one character stands to benefit from an event which hurts another character, they argue about what should be done.

But truthfully, I've seen this episode too many times to receive any particular pleasure from it now, and will try to avoid it in the future.

Monday, March 30, 2009

art to the marrow

a contrapuntal essay

If literature is just for pleasure, I don't need it: I can seek better pleasures elsewhere.

If literature is just for the appreciation of beauty, I don't need it: the world is full of great beauty uncreated by man or woman, and I can appreciate that.

If literature is just for the exploration of ideas, I don't need it: ideas don't require literature for exploration (and there is, after all, plenty of nonfiction to read).

This is not to say that literature doesn't offer pleasure, appreciation of beauty, exploration of ideas. It does offer those things to me, but that alone might be insufficient for literature's dominant place in my life. So why do I read literature?

For language. All poetry is ultimately "about" words, about language itself. Literature offers language in ways creative and energizing (aside: I'm just beginning to learn Italian, and finding the joys and challenges of immersing into a new language). And for stories. Centuries of human history (I think of Homer. I think of fairy tales) speak to the human desire for entertainment through narrative. But still for something else.

I sometimes tire of a detached, analytical critique of the aesthetic. I sometimes tire of the way we often talk about literature. For what I want literature to offer me can't quite be approached on those terms.

I want literature that reaches to my sinews, to my very marrow. I want literature to reach me in the depths of my soul, and to touch the heart of how and why I live. I want it to teach me, but to teach me not just intellectually, morally, but spiritually, passionately. I want to feel the literature in my very being, for it to grasp onto the core of a lived life.

This is not a common experience, and sometimes it is not felt immediately. It is not all literature which reaches me so strongly. King Lear does. My body and soul leap with energy when I encounter King Lear, or even when I simply talk about King Lear. King Lear has told me something I can barely put into my own words, that I can only encounter in the play and hope others can too. Dostoevsky, too, touches me with rare depth. Weeks, months, years later, the characters and images from Dostoevsky's great novels continue to haunt me, to call to me in moments both quiet and loud. Since reading Demons, a certain image of those two characters who had gone to America will enter my mind. I don't even remember their names or personalities, but I see them laying and suffering in a small dark room, and I see them later living in the same building but simply not talking to each other, because of what they shared. Why, from that entire book, is that the image that clings to me? I cannot say. Since reading The Idiot, I feel all the darkened places where Rogozhin and Prince Myshkin meet. Their meetings may work at an intellectual level, but I don't think those darkened places: I feel them. Some lines of Wordsworth's poetry cling to me and periodically emerge. Perhaps Wordsworth was my "first poet," and thus will always be there for me to measure all other poetry against.

I demand much from literature, and though I rarely find what I demand, I don't know whether I've found it until much time is passed. Wordsworth's language cries to me still. Shakespeare and Dostoevsky make demands of me, requiring me to examine and re-examine myself. And I need them to. I seek in literature the very stuff of life.

This essay is, a bit abashedly, Romantic. I offer no program of reading, no literary theory, nothing useful to understanding or appreciating literature. In fact I am writing about that which (for me) transcends such ways of thinking and reading. I don't wish to cheapen what reading literature can and has offered me. It demands the romanticized language I'm using: reading literature has been a spiritual guide to my soul.

Synecdoche, New York

Synecdoche, New York reminded me of things.  In its casual acceptance of the absurd, it reminds me of Mulholland Dr.  In its story of the confused conflation between the artist's life and his work, it reminds me of Moulin Rouge!.  In its willful and playful abandonment of realism, it reminds me of both those films.

But to say these films remind me of each other is not to deny their intense uniqueness.  Charlie Kaufman, David Lynch, and Baz Luhrmann are each Auteurs worthy of the label, their works always recognizably original and creative.

Friday, March 27, 2009

torrential downpour

Internet Culture
Given that I've never sent a text message and joined Facebook about three weeks ago, I had assumed my students were much more technologically aware than I am.  However, today I found out a large majority of my students have never heard of Twitter, LOLcats, or Rickrolling.  Since I read a lot online, I apparently keep up with things better than they do--even things some in the media tell me they are experts about.  But certainly there is an internet culture, about which those "in the know" are casually familiar, and those on the outside have never even heard of.

Moving away from novels
Once I finish Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, I'm off novels for a while.  I'll be reading drama, non-fiction, and poetry.  This novel makes me not want to read novels.  Maybe that could be a blurb on future editions: "This novel makes me not want to read novels."  But I have a lot of non-fiction I want to read, and I enjoy reading drama a lot, so it's a fine thing.

Mostly Vegan
It was about a year ago I went mostly vegan with the intent of doing it for a year.  A year later I'm 59 pounds lighter than I was.  I will mostly maintain my current lifestyle, but I'll allow for more exceptions.  Possibly many more exceptions.

The Club
It was about three years ago I started this blog, which I'd mostly call a colossal failure that I continue to work on.  But apparently late March is a time when I do lasting things, so it's a good time for swearing off novels for a while.

The Stupid Thing I Believe
I sort of believe that if there is no God, then "everything is permitted."  It's not that there aren't foundations of morality away from religion; it's that if the universe is random and nothing has inherent meaning, if death is the end of individual existence and there is no afterlife, then those foundations are built on nothing, and it doesn't matter if you follow them.  I think I only sort of believe this.  My feelings for my son make me think maybe I don't believe this.

It can't be a treat to be married to me
I shared much of the above thought with my wife this morning, about ten minutes after I woke up and while she was brushing her teeth.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Sergius in _Arms and the Man_

When reading Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man, one might respond negatively to Sergius. He does, after all, attempt to cheat on his fiancee, he's demeaning and domineering (even to the point of violence) to the servant Louka, and he comes of as a hypocrite.

But I sort of like Sergius. Rather than calling him hypocritical, I see him as conflicted over ideals like "Honor," "Nobility," and "Heroism," under great pressure to maintain an image that he doesn't quite believe in. But more than that, I just think he's funny. He's a cad, but an amusing, harmless sort of cad. His seduction of Louka is hilarious--he attempts to kiss and grope his fiancee's maid, and when she responds by speaking disrespectfully to him and about Raina, he lectures her about the honorable behavior of a "gentleman" and the proper behavior of a maid. Louka's response is classic:

"It's so hard to know what a gentleman considers right. I thought from your trying to kiss me that you had given up being so particular."

It's not that I necessarily find Sergius sympathetic (though it is possible to do so--he is wrestling with the same doubts about stated ideals as Raina). It's just that I find him amusing, not the least bit detestable. If I read the play hating Sergius, I might not be able to laugh at him.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Compositional Radical

Today I told students not to be afraid to include new ideas in the conclusion.  If I had told them not to be afraid to stand on the ceiling, they'd have been no less shocked.

Perhaps other college composition teachers share this experience.  Many students have been taught rules on writing throughout their education, then get to college and find teachers telling them it is OK to break those very rules.  I don't think I'm a radical on composition theory (I'm almost certainly not), but when I tell students it is OK to use the word "I" in a paper, they look at me like I am telling them cats have wings.

I don't want to be a sprig on a barrel organ

At Salon, Gordy Slack talks to Alva Noe about "why you are not your brain."

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

King Lear on TV

See Ian McKellen as King Lear in PBS's Great Performances on Wednesday night.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Stupid Summer Project: The Stranded

Elaine: Have you noticed, people don't use straws as much as they used to for some reason.

George: One of the guys in my cell threw a piece of gum at him.
Jerry: Oh, we all hated him.

Comment: Jerry's "Oh, Kramer, uh-huh" can be used to understand a lot of silliness.

Julia Louis-Dreyfuss is really funny; I even watch The New Adventures of Old Christine, but then I'm a sitcom rube.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Torrential Downpour

Animal Rights and “Righteousness:” further exploration on reason and faith in the secular
Another bit not intended as a developed argument, but an attempted articulation of swirling thoughts. This is why I write (even for a little read blog): working out ideas in writing helps me feel more grounded.

In an earlier exploration of Animal Rights, I suggested that even in this secular argument, it is irrational leaps of faith that guide thought and action (I don’t see a good rational argument that animals should be regarded as equal to humans, though I’m also not sure there’s a rational argument that humans are superior and can thus use animals in any way we see fit). I think the residue of religious sensibilities in this secular argument run deeper than that. From reading the writing of some vegans, vegetarians, and animal rights activists, I get the sense there is a belief in and desire for a secular version of “Righteousness,” an inner purity that separates one from the impure.

For Gary Francione, the demarcation for purity runs between vegans and everybody else; to be vegan is to be “pure,” and to consume any animal products at all puts you on the other side of the purity line (Francione: "There is no morally significant difference between meat and dairy [...] There is as much (if not more) suffering in a glass of milk as in a pound of steak "). I obviously think there is a morally significant difference, and I would put that line between meat eaters and vegetarians: I see a fundamental difference between consuming the flesh of killed animals, and not consuming the flesh of killed animals. On the issue of animal treatment in this society, I think vegetarians and vegans share more in common than vegetarians and meat eaters. But maybe that sentence itself betrays the fallacy of such a "line" of fundamental separation; the better graphic symbol is probably a set of intersecting circles.

I recognize a religious desire for Righteousness in my own vegetarianism; it is more about avoiding complicity than bringing about change (and thus if I ever do go completely vegan, it will be because my own conscience demands it, not a desire to fulfill somebody else's standard of moral purity), though I doubt other vegans and vegetarians have the same view. But the desire for inner Righteousness, an inner purity, is not exclusively religious and drives many secular conflicts. Republicans and Democrats sometimes seem to demand "ideological purity" from their members on particular issues (notably abortion). Whenever we ask a question like "Is So-And-So racist/sexist/anythingist?" we're assuming a line of demarcation between the pure and the impure (and perhaps implicitly overshadowing unconscious assumptions of racism/sexism/anythingism, and of institutional racism/sexism/anythingism). Again, I see the residues of religious issues in secular arguments.

Review of The Face on Your Plate: The Truth About Food, by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson (LA Times).

Christopher Hitchens on Karl Marx today (The Atlantic).

Eric Margolis on war in Afghanistan (Common Dreams).

I generally don't like audience interaction/participation in theater; I've got the weird feeling the actors are treating me like a rube and they think they're better than me (The Onion).

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The logic of militarism

I'm pulling this quote from Andrew Sullivan out of context, but I think it is worth it:

"It's also important to note that war crimes happen in every war - and that the way to judge a society is how it handles such things."

Follow the logic here: since war crimes are an inevitable part of war, the way to judge a society is on how it treats war crimes when it chooses to go to war.

I think to reach this conclusion over the inevitability of war crimes is insane (or, if you prefer, highlights intrinsic acceptance of militarism). To me, the inevitability of war crimes in war calls into question the effectiveness and morality of warfare, and suggests the way to judge a society might be how much of its resources it devotes to warfare, the efforts it takes to avoid war, and how and why it chooses to go to war. To a pacifist, Sullivan's statement is a bit like saying that if you let your kids throw rocks at passing cars, they'll inevitably hit a few pedestrians, but what matters is that you tell them to avoid hitting pedestrians, and punish them if they do.

But if you accept (or support) warfare, and you accept that warfare inevitably leads to war crimes, you're left with the conclusion that what matters is how the society treats the inevitable war crimes. When you've accepted a culture of militarism, you don't reach the conclusion that war itself is the problem.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

John Updike's poetry

The March 16th edition of The New Yorker contains some really great poetry by John Updike. The poems on dying are elegant, thoughtful, moving.

See also Nicolaus Mills' "John Updike's Goodbye" in Dissent.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

"Be like me a little" (or, does Oskar let the right one in?)

Spoilers and all.

Let the Right One In plays on the vampire tradition that the vampire must be invited into a home, and the motif of meetings at doorways and windows repeats throughout the film. However, I believe that letting the right one in refers to an internal conflict--to badly oversimplify, to "let the right one in" is to resist the evil within oneself.

Let's take a brief gloss at some key images and moments throughout the movie that might support this understanding.

--one of the first images we see is the distorted reflection of Oskar as he looks out the window. He is in the process of practicing to murder some school bullies (he is also doing such practice the first time Eli appears to him, further supporting this interpretation). Given that he collects news stories about murderers, it is fair to believe we are watching a killer develop.

--Eli tells Oskar that he must fight back against the bullies.

--Oskar does fight back, hitting the lead bully in the ear with a stick. After doing so, his face has a look of ecstatic pleasure.

--When Oskar first comes into Eli's apartment (and learns for certain she is a vampire), he is touching her hand through the glass on her door. She keeps moving her hand around, and he keeps following to try keep covering it).

--Eli tells Oskar that she is like him: he has murderous desires. She tells him that he must repress these--she kills because she has too (her consumption of blood is usually portrayed as an animalistic compulsion). She tells Oskar to "be like me a little."

--Eli offers Oskar some money--he disgustedly rejects it, knowing it comes from her victims.

--After Oskar saves Eli (not entirely intentionally helping her to kill her potential killer), Eli thanks him and leaves, and again we see the the image of Oskar's reflection through the window as he touches the glass. At this point it is difficult not to see the parallel--Oskar touching the hand of his reflection in the glass, Oskar touching Eli's hand through the glass. She is, in some ways, a reflection of himself.

--What follows is the most frightening scene in the film: an even more dangerous bully joins the earlier gang of bullies, and Oskar is seriously threatened. He is not in a position to fight back, and he passively acquiesces to the violent threat. He is saved by Eli, and their eyes meet and they smile at one another.

--The final scene (Oskar on a train, signaling Morse code through a box that may contain Eli) suggests Oskar is Eli's new mortal servant.

After developing this interpretation, I'm still left with a lingering question: did Oskar "let the right one in"?

He did not violently defend himself--yet he was in no position to do so. But Eli's rescue was extremely violent, and if he now works as her mortal servant, we know he will likely be asked to perform rather nefarious deeds (we've already seen Eli's previous mortal servant committing murders and disposing of bodies). But maybe letting in the violent side is, within the film, the "right one." Or maybe letting the right one in refers to Eli's choice of Oskar.

I'm posting this fresh, without tainting my ideas with the ideas of others; I'll now check out some reviews and see what other angles have been taken.

Reading Manohla Dargis' NY Times review, I recall that Eli kisses Oskar while there is still blood on her lips. Dargis points out that "Eli seizes on Oskar immediately, slipping her hand under his, writing him notes, becoming his protector, baring her fangs."

Other reviews: Roger Ebert, Carina Chocano , Angela Kaelin, Ben Kenber (who writes, "Of course, there will be more moralizing over what Eli has done and how Oskar should (in the eyes of many) respond to it." Perhaps that's what I'm doing, though interpreting the movie as an internal conflict isn't exactly "moralizing," and at any rate Eli seems to offer moral advice to Oskar), Jonathan Kiefer, Roger Moore

Literary Studies and the Humanities (or, it's all interdisciplinary)

a contrapuntal essay

Teaching in the Humanities, I find that there is nothing I read that isn't potentially relevant--even concretely useful--to my profession. Reading John Howard Yoder's The Politics of Jesus (second edition) suggests to me that debates within literary criticism also exist within theology.

There is the larger issue of the relevance of historical understanding of the contemporary context around the texts. Yoder does cite historical context of the gospel writers' words ("historical and literary-critical grounds" (42)), and this seems proper for a historical (and theological) understanding of the work (as aside: while the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's "seminaries and colleges generally teach a form of historical-critical method of biblical analysis, an approach that, broadly speaking, seeks to understand the scriptures and the process of canon formation with reference to historical and social context," the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod "teaches Biblical inerrancy, the teaching that Bible is inspired by God and is without error. For this reason, they reject much--if not all--of modern liberal scholarship"). I think a scholarly, critical understanding of historical context for biblical texts is enlightening for our understanding.

I'm not, however, convinced this historical understanding is necessary for literary criticism, by which I mean criticism of artistic works like fiction, drama, and poetry. Historical context may enlighten an understanding of a given work, but it may also be distracting from understanding a particular work, taking attention away from the text itself and to extra-textual information about the author and his/her society and times. For example, I think of Romeo and Juliet not as a great love story, but as a story of civil war and family rivalry--the feud between the Capulets and the Montagues dominates the text, really, and the relationship and destruction of Romeo and Juliet are problems inherent to the family feud. Perhaps I could follow the path historically (Shakespeare living and writing during the reign of Elizabeth Tudor, the Tudor dynasty being the one that came out of and ended a long period of English civil war, etc. etc.). Perhaps that historical and political understanding influenced Shakespeare (in fact, I think it probably did). But if I start following the path of history back to the War of the Roses, I've moved away from Romeo and Juliet, and there is plenty within Romeo and Juliet to encounter on its own (I'm a defender of the play: I think if Shakespeare had written nothing but this play, it alone would be a masterpiece to justify Shakespeare's place as a titan of English poetry).

Here are some passages from Yoder's book that are relevant to literary criticism, and my own views.

"Hans Conzelmann [...] likewise argues that although it is part of the scholar's task to seek to evaluate his documents and reconstruct the events behind them, the first interest of the student of any text must be what the author of the text means to say" (4).

I think this claim depends on the reason the "scholar" is reading. For an historian or theologian reading a text, an understanding of intent is useful if not necessary. But for reading literature, I mostly reject the necessity of authorial intent. I certainly don't think my first "interest" as a "student of any text" is the author's intent; my first interest as a (let's try the term on) "literary critic" is to engage with the text. If I move away from the text itself to an attempt to understand the author's intent, then I am not interpreting the text as it is, but the text as it may have been intended to be. But perhaps a "reader" of literature is not the same thing as a "scholar" as Conzelmann or Yoder would define it.

"What it means that every reader of a text has and owns a specific perspective, as over against seeking or claiming some kind of quasi-neutral 'objectivity,' is itself part of the continuing debate among scholars about proper method" (14).

I certainly embrace subjectivity over objectivity in literary studies, and this is much easier in literary studies than in other fields. Biblical exegesis is a lot like literary criticism--it engages in close attention to the text to understand it. But theology has consequences--that literary interpretation of the biblical text is used to support or create theological positions. What are the consequences of subjective interpretations of literature? No negative ones that I can perceive. If person A has a vastly different understanding of King Lear from person B, that hardly matters to person C--it's doubtful either person A or person B will use their differing interpretations of King Lear to set up a system of belief for person C. It's just fine that in reading literature, we don't attempt a "quasi-neutral 'objectivity," and it doesn't matter that there is no such thing. We are free to engage with the texts as individuals, and our subjective understandings mostly lack consequence.

"The prerequisite for appropriate reading of any text is the reader's empathy or congeniality with the intention and genre of the text. We do not ask someone hostile to the discipline of mathematics to read a mathematics text expertly. To read a text of the genre gospel under the a priori assumption that there could be no such thing as 'good news' (whether as a true message or as a genre) would be no more fitting" (14-15).

I'm not certain this is true. I suppose in some sense it is: if Person A believes novels are a waste of time and shouldn't be bothered with, I probably needn't read Person A's review of Moby Dick. But a reader lacking "empathy or congeniality" for a field may find important critical insights while engaging with the text. Marx was certainly hostile to capitalism, but that doesn't mean he didn't find keen insights into how capitalism works. I'd be interested in reading a hostile outsider's critique of texts from fields like Economics, or Psychology--that critique might bring with it useful insights.

In reading Yoder's The Politics of Jesus, I've found passages that could directly be applied to and debated within literary studies. But as a reader and teacher, I hardly need such explicit connections to make my reading relevant to my teaching. I often find much of my pleasurable reading coming up during discussion, during lecture, in teaching composition and in teaching literature. I don't always know that what I've read will come up, but then during class, it suddenly springs to my mind, and organically fits into what we are up to. The reading from my "personal" life is never entirely separated from my professional life--but then, my professional life is not entirely separate from personal life, either. My sense is that English teachers tend to love reading on a personal level, and go into the profession because of that love.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

On Reading and Influence

There are interesting posts going up everywhere on the most influential writers to particular individuals (see To Delight and to Instruct, Not of General Interest, and So Many Books). It is an interesting topic. I certainly know what people, what classes, what experiences have formed me; before sharing what writers have influenced me by their writing (and my reading) alone, I need to reflect seriously.

When I think of writers who have influenced me, I take quite seriously the meaning of "influence." To claim that somebody I have never met but have read had an impact, I am suggesting that the writer affected my understanding of myself, humanity, or the world, even to the point of altering my behavior. I am saying I wouldn't interpret reality the way I do if I didn't encounter this writer, and that it is possibly my actions have been influenced by this writer.

I'm surprised to say that as a reader of poetry, no poet has had such an influence. My favorite poets (Wordsworth, Shelley, Milton, Hughes, Harrison, Duffy) have not actually changed me (other than making me love poetry). And there are several writers that did influence me at one time, but whose influence has, I think, waned. Stephen King, Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, Alexandre Dumas, Jean-Paul Sartre--at one point they did color the way I viewed myself and the world I lived in, and I can even recall moments when I behaved the way I did because of these writers. But I don't know that any of these writers are responsible for how I currently live and think (though I cannot discount that their influence has left a permanent imprint).

And that leaves the writers who permanently formed me, who who still linger with me, who still have the power to influence how I interpret events, interact with people, and consider my identity.

The writers of the four gospels. I know that nothing I ever read will impact me the way reading the Bible on my own as a teenager impacted me. The gospels provided the metaphors by which I view the world, bolstered my liberal politics, taught me to seek God, taught me to seek a meaningful life, showed me how to behave in the world. It is the Jesus I encountered alone in these four stories that profoundly influenced me.

The writer of the book of Ecclesiastes. And nothing taught me the futility of existence, the randomness of the universe, the emptiness of life, the unimportance of the earthly world, quite like this book.

Henry David Thoreau. "Life Without Principle" still informs my view of work and how I spend my time.

Martin Luther. I read Luther during a formative time of life, though I cannot say for certain whether it was Luther's writing or Luther's biographers (Roland Bainton in particular) that taught me. It is not just Luther's understanding of Christianity that affected me; learning about Luther's life (particularly from my history teacher, John Buschen, and from Luther's biographer Erik Erikson) helped me to understand myself.

John Fowles. I still feel The Magus and The French Lieutenant's Woman frequently. Not least of all, Fowles taught me about Hazard, about random chance in our lives. He taught me much, much more, including how to read.

John Howard Yoder. Yoder is the writer that permanently grounded my pacifism in Christ.

William Shakespeare. For one work: King Lear. It is one thing to try express nihilistic ideas; it is another altogether to experience Lear. To read Lear is to immerse oneself into a cosmos, one of vast open space vulnerable beneath the large indifferent heavens. It is not to think so much as to feel intuitively. Oh, it makes me think, certainly. But the better thoughts it provides me are not articulated in words, but in images, in emotions, in tones. To even explain how I feel King Lear cheapens it; what Lear immerses me into cannot be put into any other than Shakespeare's own words.

Fyodor Dostoevsky. Among the influences specified here, there is obviously a powerful influence of Christianity. But so too is there a powerful influence of existential, atheistic, nihilistic doubt and disbelief. It is Dostoevsky who occupies, in my mind, that realm that is not in between these extremes, but is both at the same time.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Writing and Audience

Intended Audience obviously has a great impact on writing form and style. I write regularly at three different blogs, and have a very different conception of who may be reading each.  I don't simply write a brief essay on a topic, then post the essay wherever the content fits; I have a very different tone and style at each blog.

Consideration for audience can be a challenge in a composition course; students, I think, tend to see themselves writing for the teacher.  That's why (inspired by my brother) I'm now asking students to read their in-class informal writings aloud.  It is not that I want to intimidate them (although some are obviously frightened by the prospect), nor that I want them to learn how to read aloud (though they may).  It is that I don't want students to think they are only writing for me.  Knowing that they may be reading their responses aloud, they may write differently.  They may gain a better sense of  public identity as a writer.  That seems important to how we use language.

I'm hoping students engage more deeply with their writing (particularly tone, style, form) when they are "performing" not exclusively for a teacher, but for each other.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Rejecting Militarism

Peter King writes about Larry Fitzgerald's USO tour to Iraq:

"In every stop on the four-player tour [...] of U.S. military bases in Iraq, the playoff hero told the crowd some version of this: 'Thank you. If it wasn't for you doing what you do, I wouldn't be able to do what I do. I just want you to know how much I appreciate all the sacrifices you're making -- and I'm not alone.''"

I know many people believe this: that the U.S. military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan are necessary for Larry Fitzgerald to make millions of dollars catching passes. But I see it as a non sequitur that perpetuates a militaristic culture that glorifies war. This is why I can't share in Nathan Schneider's hope that

"There must be a way to honor such sacrifices as war brings out in people while abhorring the pointless insanity that occasioned it, abhorring it so completely that it can never possibly happen again."

I think this sort of mythology (that soldiers occupying a foreign nation make our necessary lifestyles possible--a belief many hold as a secure article of faith, one that is difficult to refute, yet also difficult to prove) contributes to a culture that sees warfare as necessary and honorable. The conventional wisdom that we are able to live our lives as we do because of soldiers grants a necessity to warfare that I do not accept. I want to reject militarism at all levels.