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.