Friday, 30 December 2011

Girardian Rivalry

[I should be writing a final paper (mimesis in The Two Gentlemen of Verona) right now; the longer I put it off, the more I'll suffer for it. In a move that may seem counterintuitive, I am going to write a blogpost instead. I intend to write on an idea that I will be employing in my paper, which will with any luck bring my brain gently back on topic and help me get something done on this paper...]

René Girard is reasonably well known for his idea of mimetic desire, which states that we all want things because we have learned to want them from someone else. The traditional example for this is romantic or erotic love: A loves B because C loves B. This does not only produce particular relations between A and B; it also produces particular relations between A and C. That is, I have unique relationships with people whose desires I imitate, and with people who imitate my desires.

In Theatre of Envy, on the operation of mimetic desire in Shakespeare's plays (Girard claims that Shakespeare is exceptional because he's one of the few playwrights to understand that desire is mimetic and is therefore one of the few to portray it realistically), Girard spends the introduction and the first chapter discussing this dynamic: "Individuals who desire the same thing are united by something so powerful that, as long as they can share whatever they desire, they remain the best of friends; as soon as they cannot, they become the worst of enemies." Thus mimetic desire becomes mimetic rivalry. But it is not only that we inevitably wind up desiring the same things as our friends, or are friends with those whose desires we imitate: we are active agents in sharing desires. We want our friends to desire the same things that we do. Speaking of the eponymous friends in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Proteus and Valentine, Girard writes: "Whenever they do not see eye to eye, our two friends feel that something is wrong; each one tries to persuade the other that he should reorient his desire in such a way as to make it coincide with his own once again. Friendship is the perpetual coincidence of two desires." The consequence of this effect is as inevitable as the effect itself. On top of friendship's first imperative (Girard sums it up as "imitate me") arises a second imperative, "do not imitate me." He calls this the "double bind" of friendship.

The idea of mimetic desire (and mimetic rivalry) is one we vigourously want to reject, says Girard. As a result, it is masked by assorted claims and ideas and discourses. It very rarely appears in our culture, and when it does it is always disguised. But it cannot be so easily gotten rid of. Short of embracing our mimetic desires and rivalries, we have two options: "total renunciation" of desire, or the production of some kind of monster or perversion. These monsters or perversion have the characteristic of producing new mimetic rivalries later on, or simply recycling the old one in some disguised way.

Girard of course goes on. He talks about learning to desire oneself from a besotted courter (Pheobe and Silvius from As You Like It is his example, and I will parenthetically add that his chapter is the best explanation for the title of that play that I've ever read); he talks about the role of the pander; he talks about alliances forged out of conflicts when the desired object is lost to both parties. But I will rest with this description of his idea for now.


When discussing my paper with the professor, she said, "Be careful with Girard. He has a tendency to take over everything." I don't imagine she's wrong. Reading Theatre of Envy, I started seeing mimetic desire and mimetic rivalry everywhere. I know other people have made much of the idea. Eve Sedgwick's Between Men, one of the most interesting pieces of literary theory that I have never read, is a good example. Dr. Richard Beck from Experimental Theology has also used Girard's ideas (like this post). It also does a wonderful job of explaining how Betty and Veronica remain friends, and how they band together when defending their stakes in Archie against outsiders like Cheryl Blossom (you can see how I spent my childhood). The applications abound.

One of things I like about it is that Girard deliberately sets this up as a competitor to Freud's ideas. This is why I also like Lacan. It is not that I necessarily like the consequences of these any more than I like the consequences of Freudian incest and repression. Rather, I see how Freud's ideas can monopolize discourses and can form an ideological juggernaut which is hard to defeat. Freudian psychoanalysis has the tendency to be able to explain away any objection by describing any counterexample as a transformation of a repressed desire. Girard's ideas (like Lacan's) are nice because they provide competitors with the same insiduous powers of explaining-away. Any one alone is pretty scary, but competing with each other they become managable.

But, as I think you'll have noticed by now, I'm not too worried about this mimetic desire. I have read Theatre of Envy and I have found that it cannot take over everything after all. I see gaps in it. Friendship, for instance, is built out of differences as well as similarities. I generally want my friends to be pursuing different goals than I am, actually; I like being able to watch them do things I don't understand. And quarreling over trivial differences of opinion can be rather fun; one of the major let-downs of Lewis' heaven in The Last Battle is that everyone agreed (an ideal utopia for me would be a place where people could quarrel without taking it personally--I, at least, usually take it personally, and so can never really enjoy it as much as I'd like). And I have difficulty imagining who I am imitating in a number of my desires. I can't think, for instance, of anyone else who likes to eat limes; at the very least, I was eating limes before I met anyone else who did. A prerequisite for mimesis is that there must be an original, even if it is lost. That originary desire could not have been mimetic.

What I like, then, about Girardian mimesis is that it is helpful in understanding some things, and it breaks the hegemonic hold of Freudian psychoanalysis (for instance, by offering another way of explaining Oedipal complexes without making them universal) and certain strains of evolutionary psychology (rather than needing to explain how a particular behaviour--the desire for pale skin, say--emerged in early hominids, you could explain how it arose as a consequence of mimetic forces in this context, and therefore avoid universalizing a contextual trait). I do not think it accurately explains the whole picture, but it helps contribute to a set of alternative explanations which, I think, does a better job of describing the complexity of human psychology and sociology.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Boredom, Day-Dreaming, and Creativity

Take a look at this article from The Importance of Mind Wandering.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Disallowed Opinions

In my third year of my undergraduate degree, I was asked (as a member of the Department Students Council) to attend a job talk by a prospective lecturer. During this talk, the faculty began to ask the lecturer questions, and one of the junior faculty interrupted her own question to say, "I don't mean to sound conservative--I'm not conservative--but... ." I was a bit concerned by this insertion, ticked that the lecturer would feel such distaste for the conservative position that she would need to distance herself from it. When I got home and related this to my housemates, one of them said, "You would be offended by that, wouldn't you?," as though I was somehow emblematic of conservatism. (Which is kind of weird, since I'm socialist, environmentalist, and strongly concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice.)

Now that I look back on this, I realize that that faculty member could not have done otherwise. If you want to be taken seriously in academia, if you want anyone to listen to you, then you need to remove yourself constantly from the suggestion of being conservative. Conservatism is not an allowable position in academia, or at least not humanities departments in Canada. And so even those people who are not conservative--not even remotely conservative--must always be on guard to disavow conservativism in case any particular opinion seems to appear conservative or look like a particular conservative opinion.

There are a few problems with this, and I'm not sure how they rank in terms of destructiveness. One problem is that people who have conservative opinions are effectively barred from conversation (not necessarily because they cannot speak but rather because no one will listen). And while some might not lament the loss of their conservative opinions (more on this in a moment), we should certainly lament the loss of their other opinions, those that are either not conservative or that are not trackable on a conservative-liberal-socialist continuum. These lost opinions may be very good ones, ones we are in need of, but if we are too busy distancing ourselves from conservatism, we won't be able to take them seriously.

The second problem is that a conservative idea could, of course, be correct. I'm having a difficult time imagining a conservative idea which I could support, but then again I don't think much of that left-right continuum, so ideas I might think of as non-conservative could appear conservative to others. At any rate, I am at least willing to admit that there could be opinions which appear conservative that turn out to be rather valuable without turning out to be non-conservative. In fact, that certain positions which I am very certain are correct can be closely if not perfectly formulated in conservative terms (ie. conservationism and conservative are cognate for a reason) suggests that there are conservative ideas which, if slightly reformulated, could fit admirably within a non-conservative framework. All of this indicates that barring conservative ideas from the discourse is counter-productive. And yet, by making conservatism something we must necessarily distance ourselves from if we want to be heard, we have ensured that those ideas do not get aired. And that is bad news indeed.

Friday, 26 August 2011

7 Quick Takes

1. I've been moving the last couple of days (and will still be in the midst of getting my stuff together in the coming days). If you've been noticing a marked absence in posting, this is partly why. I'm moving from a basement suite into an apartment of my own. This will be the first time I'll have my own place, no roommates, no housemates, no shared accom.

2. I have purchased and played Portal. I realize that I'm at least a half-decade behind on this, but I'm happy I finally did get caught up. I very much enjoyed it. Part of what interests me about it is that the game is (relatively) non-violent, at least in so far as you get shot at but you don't do any shooting. It's puzzle-based with a simple, stream-lined story. (In this case, I'd say it's simple in a good way.) Also, the gimmick the game is built around--that you can make linked portals on surfaces that you can travel through--is a lot of fun, in that it requires a slight tweak to your regular spacial reasoning.

And speaking of computer games, I think you might want to look at this trailer. The genre is squarely cyberpunk and has all of the conventions of it, but I'm interested in how it indicates a change in how computer games are marketed. I've fallen out of that world for a little while and I don't want to make unfair generalizations, but story and theme seem increasingly valued. Maybe Tycho at Penny Arcade exaggerates a little in his assessment of how philosophical this product is, but I think we are headed somewhere where his panygeric is not an exaggeration. (Though, given his writing style, I imagine he would up the ante as well and continue to overstate.) (And maybe he doesn't exaggerate. I've never played the game. And I may have unrealistically high expecations for theoretical questioning, since that is what my career seems to be right now.)

3. I visited a Buddhist temple. Not with the intent of converting, mind you, but of just looking and learning and (hopefully) taking photographs. However, no one there at the time was especially fluent in English, so my ability to learn things was a bit hampered by this (combined with my own lack of Mandarin, of course) and by the fact that I didn't really have any questions prepared, since I knew almost nothing about that temple before I visited. (I was lucky enough to see Pure Land displayed prominently somewhere, and to remember a little bit about the Pure Land sect from my RELS minor in undergrad.)

I was only allowed to take photographs of the exterior, but that's still pretty cool. The property is very beautiful, the interior more than the exterior, I think.

4. I have been going to David's Tea fairly often, equipping myself and my new crib, and trying new teas. I'm still a novice at this whole tea-drinking thing, and I've been meaning to find some new black teas--no fruit, no spices, no flowers--for first thing in the morning. I like the fancier teas later in the day, but first thing in the morning I like a straight black tea. Also, I got a kettle and a travel mug (with a built-in French press! what luxury!) that is wide enough for me to get my hand in to clean the bottom. This is always a problem for me with travel mugs.

Anyway, I like David's Tea because the staff are so extraordinarily friendly and helpful and chatty, and I am learning a lot about teas. Whenever I go in requesting one kind of tea, they show me others I might like based on that (and when I go back to try one of those, they show me more...).

5. At church I have been performing new liturgical roles. I am now trained to do pretty

much everything, liturgically speaking, with the exception of those things the priest does (of course). I imagine it's somewhat unorthodox for me to be doing them--I'm not even a diaconal assistant--but "somewhat unorthodox" is our modus operandi. However, as much as I am "good" at liturgy, I am increasingly reminded that no one is good at something they first start. I fumble as much as I did when I started being a server, and unfortunately those fumbles are bigger now. Still, everyone is quite nice about it.

6. I was reading Sedgwick's Epistemology of the Closet, which is very important and theoretically originary queer literary theory/queer theory without the literary, since Sedgwick is somewhat lauded for her ability to make bridges from text to politics/practice, a move that's difficult, controversial, and otherwise fraught. However, even though I enjoyed it a lot, I found that I stalled entirely at the beginning of the final chapter and simply haven't finished it. I need to move on. I've been trying to work with Precarious Life ("how mourning and violence might [...] inspire solidarity and a quest for global justice"), but I may need to read something lighter, at least until I'm finished moving. (I did want to finish it before classes began, though.)

7. For the last few weeks, we have had only one day of rain. The grass is dying here. This is so unlike Vancouver. It has also been less than excellent for purposes of photography, though I am finding that I can get some beautiful pictures of flowers in bright sunlight, even though it's usually the case that slightly overcast is all-around better for floral photography. If you can avoid the sunflares and the terribly inconsistent light levels, though, bold sunlight makes for bold colours.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Reasons to Have Hope

Browsing through this blog, you might get a sense that one of the things I struggle with is a poverty of hope. From time to time TED talks do give me a little bit of hope, but often that hope collapses either because I realize that it's too much optimism and not enough substance, or because I see that it solves one problem and seriously exacerbates another, worse problem, or because the next TED talk I watch seems to think that the solution involves simply fancier technology.

However, from time to time I see ones that, I think, might stick, because they show ways in which social interaction can be rearranged for substantial improvement along lines that are already working in other areas. The following three talks are excellent examples I've recently encountered.

The first two are both by Rory Sutherland, an ad man whose ideas really need to be taken up by advocacy and activism groups. (Talks 1 and 2) His big thing is that if we want to lose some of our materialist culture, we need to develop new senses of value, something that the advertising industry is expert at creating. In the second talk, he discusses how we're biased towards costly solutions when minor solutions are sometimes just as powerful.
The third is by Jane McGonigal, a video game designer who is working on harnessing the problem-solving skills of our young gamers for real-world problems. (Here's the link.) She discusses the difference between problem-solving in MMOs and the sort of problem-solving attitudes those same people have in real life, and also discusses how gamers have actual skills that non-gamers do not have. They are experts at those skills, and we need them.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Another Account of My Absence

G'day, all.

Welcome, if you're here from Unequally Yoked, where the guest post I wrote is now up. To be honest, I'm fairly sure I've made an embarassment of myself, but I suppose we'll have to wait and see what the response is. If you look through some recent posts, you'll see I've provided further positioning about religion in preparation for your arrival. I hope it's helpful or enlightening.

That guest post has reminded me that I haven't done a 7 Quick Takes in a little while, and those spare regular readers I have might be as interested in what's happening in my life more than in my theology/philosophy. (You know, friends and family.) So I figure I should give a run-down of what's been going on in (unusually) sunny Van. However, as it is not a Friday, I feel hesistant about actually writing a 7 Quick Takes today. I'm a genre nerd, after all. However, I will maintain the numbered and bolded list format. Hopefully it will be less of a sprawl that way, but, well, most of what I do resembles sprawling in one way or another, so don't get your hopes up.

1. Part of my absence has been related to Netflix, so I'll start with that. I watched a movie a while back that I would like to recommend called Arranged. Rochel and Nasiri (Orthodox Jewish and Muslim respectively) both start jobs at an elementary school, where the students and staff all assume that they could not get along. Ironically, it is this assumption that causes them to become friends and, together, approach their up-coming arranged marriages and their principal's attempts to "liberate" them. This is an excellent movie, one well worth watching. It has much to recommend it, but most of all it manages to show the downsides of controlling parents while still affirming traditional lifestyles. In particular, Rochel's experience at a contemporary party reflected my own experiences.

I might also recommend 7 Khoom Maaf (Seven Sins Forgiven), a Bollywood film about Susanna Anna-Marie Johannes, an Indian woman who tends to choose the wrong men and, after wedding them, murder them. It's actually a very good film about a very broken woman who seems propelled despite herself on a path of love and violence. A particular scene I found interesting involved two anatomically atypical men engaged in a fight (the pre-arranged sort, in a ring, with spectators) in which neither the spectators nor the camera saw them as anything but competent, dangerous combatants. Their anatomies/abilities aren't ever mentioned.

I have watched a lot more than this (X-Men, the final Harry Potter, Captain America, Cowboys and Aliens, The Rite, Voyage of the Dawn Treader, seasons 2-3 of Heroes), but these are the ones that seem to me worth mentioning.

2. I went to No. 5 Road in Richmond and took photos. No. 5 Road is known for the sheer number of churches, temples, mosques, gurdwaras positioned along it. It has the nickname "The Highway to Heaven" (which isn't really fair, I don't think, to those groups who don't have a concept of heaven). However, because the buildings are recessed on their properties, I didn't get as many nice photos as I would have liked. As a result of this, though, I have started a photo series I am calling The Architecture of Belief, adding to it photos of any house of worship I photograph. I'll add some of those here.
Since then, I have also visited a few labyrinths to photograph, including an abandoned one.

3. I've recently become aware of Gene Robinson and David Somerville. The latter, actually, I learned about when attending a requiem service for him. Ironic? And the former I stumbled on researching for a previous post, and have since listened to his talks on Youtube. His 2008 Creating Change speech is well worth it. (I'm not a big fan of the introduction, so don't let that turn you off of the speech.) This also marks my opinions rather entirely, I guess.

4. Volunteering at the Crane Production Facility is great. (Recap: I narrate selected texts into a computer program; Crane staff will then take my narration and others' narrations and composite them into an audio book for the text impaired.) I've read all sorts of interesting and challenging things, like Proust (that was ambitious!), the appendices of some book, and parts of David Suzuki's The Sacred Balance, an eco-activist book. Yo, American readers, do you guys know who Suzuki is? He's a big deal in Canada, but it's hard to tell how much the States is aware of our exports.

Anyway, Suzuki's book is interesting and fascinatingly composed (I like that kind of science writing a lot), but I do have one complaint: omitting the serial comma in complex lists is atrocious! It's impossible to read it aloud correctly the first time, since that comma is crucial for signalling that this is a new member you're coming upon and that you need to balance your voice accordingly. I had to re-do I don't know how many sentences due to this. Go Team Serial Comma!

5. I visited the Belkin Art Gallery. The current exhibit is Material Witness. Not all of it was my cup of tea, but I should say that I found Konrad Wendt's Gegenstand brilliant (it's a split log--one half is art, the other is firewood), and I loved Martha Wilson's Orchids.

6. I made revisions to a paper on religion and Asian Canadian identity that might get published at some point. I hate revisions (who doesn't?), but it certainly is a stronger paper for it. A book arrived in the university library between drafts, and the information in that book played a large role in those improvements. Funny how much timing has to do with this sort of thing.

7. I visited the Vancouver Art Gallery. The Surrealist exhibit was less interesting to me (though I found some of the philosophical ideas underpinning Surrealism quite interesting, and I found the cultural influences on it--West Coast culture, natural history museums, Freud, Greek myth--a fascinating blend). I did quite enjoy Ken Lum's work, though: his social criticism is sharp, but also quite fun in a lot of ways. His stuff has a quotidian or pop and low culture feel to it, what with 80s-style portraiture attached to billboard-style logos of the subject's names. He also plays a lot with mirrors, and I found his mirror maze a lot of fun. I'd never been in a mirror maze before.

That afternoon I also visited the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art, which is small and out of the way, but worth the visit (if you like Haida art or art theory). I also paid $5 to hold an albino Burmese python named Buttercup and have my picture taken with her. She was a beautiful, heavy, strong animal. The feel of her muscles on my shoulders and neck was wonderful and somewhat disconcerting.

8. I've been apartment-hunting. If all goes well, I'll have a place by the middle of the month, which will give me two weeks to move from one to the other. Fingers crossed.

9. I finally made the trip down to Granville Island to walk around. It's a nice place, though much of its pleasure costs money. There's a lot to look at, though, especially if you are interested in the creation of urban spaces. Much of the area is situated underneath a bridge, so to see how that bridge is used in the definition of vertical space was interesting. There were also lots of wedding photo shoots around when I was visiting.

10. Church stuff: I am being trained for more liturgical responsibilities; specifically, I am being prepared for proto-deacon roles. This is quite unusual (or, you know, unorthodox), as I'm not a deacon or even a diaconal candidate. However, the goal (I think) is to have multiple able to perform all tasks (except the priestly ones, of course) so that liturgical assistants don't need to serve every day. The irony is that I serve almost every week (I haven't had a week without some responsibility since getting back to Vancouver in June), but this might ease off in September, when the other server will be able to come more often.

11. Books. I've not been reading as much as is my wont, but I'll mention Emma and The Epistemology of the Closet. Wikipedia should be able to help you out with both of those, but I'll mention that I found Emma quite slow at the outset and quite engaging at the end, and that I'm quite pleased with Epistemology, especially as the first Axiom that Sedgwick posits is that "People are different from each other." A passing familiarity with my previous posts will indicate how important this idea is to me.

Aaaaaaand I think that should do. There's been letter-writing and MOA-visiting and what have you in there, but I imagine that should satisfy the curiosities of those who care.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Protection from Temporal Power

or, The Separation of Church and State

I am certainly not the only one who has voiced deep suspicions regarding the idea of secular spaces and parts of life, but I have voiced them, here. On re-reading those posts, however, I realize that there may be cause for confusion, and so I wish to make a clarification: while I do not believe that I can divide my life into the religious and the non-religious, I will defend secularism as a political institution. That is, I will argue for the institutional separation of church and state.

I can understand, though, how a devoted Christian (or other believer) could desire a conflation of a religious group and the ruling party. If you do truly believe that your religion offers the best understanding of the universe and the best moral framework, then it may seem to follow that your religion should guide (dictate?) your society's political decisions. The best way of ensuring that, unless your electorate is homogenous, is to have your religion unambiguously in charge. (I think of C S Lewis' allegory of the fleet in Mere Christianity.)

There are some obvious problems to this: for instance, even if Christianity were in charge, I don't think it's clear whose Christianity is in charge. Pope Benedict's? Pope John Paul II's? (I'd say these are different.) Fred Phelp's? Gene Robinson's? Pat Robertson's? Alexis Seniantha's? And how would such religious-political power be enforced? This also holds true for any kind of ideological power, really: can you maintain it and enforce it without violating the principles of that ideology? The sort of Christianity I believe in can't be enforced without contradiction, and this is, I think, an important point. Again I would like to turn to Huston Smith on Hinduism (not that I get everything I know about religion from The World's Religions, but I find it's succinct and usually make explicit what I want to refer to).

In the following passage Smith explains the role of the brahmin in the Hindu caste system:

Members of this class must possess enough willpower to counter the egoism and seductions that distort perception. They command respect because others recognize both their own incapacity for such restraint and the truth of what the seer tells them. [...] But such vision is fragile; it yields sound discernments only when carefully protected. Needing leisure for unhurried reflection, the seer must be protected from overinvolvement in the day-to-day exigencies that clutter and cloud the mind [...]. Above all, this final caste must be protected from temporal power. India considered Plato's dream of the philosopher king unrealistic, and it is true that when brahmins assumed social power, they became corrupt. For temporal power subjects its wielder to pressures and temptations that to some extent refract judgment and distort it. The role of the seer is not to crack down but to counsel, not to drive but to guide. [emphasis mine]

We see here that it is not only political, institutional power that corrupts the brahmin, but also social power. It is likely an oversimplification to say that the worst excesses of Christian churches--whether Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Pentacostal--are a result of power, but I am certain that power was involved, and I think a cursory glance through your own understanding of history will support that.

For instance, much of my sense of the specifics of doctrinal history come from my Lutheran confirmation class some years ago. To my understanding, many of the problems that Luther sought to reform in the Catholic Church, leading to his excommunication and, eventually, the formation of one of the earliest Protestant churches, were fairly obviously instances in which the political power of the Church resulted in a corruption of its doctrine. In particular, the sale of indulgences could only exist in a setting where the church dealt in wealth and power. (Or so you'd think, but Scientology and the celebrity version of Kaballah do sometimes exchange spiritual status for money, and I'm not going to say that televangelists are above similar tricks. But these are somewhat different phenomena.) More than this, Luther was forced into exile because of his heterodoxy. When political power and religious groups are closely tied, heresy is necessarily political. (In better news, it wasn't much later that the Catholic Church conceded he was right on the indulgence count.) If you prefer other examples, I can think of the abuses performed both on Aboriginal bodies and on theology in Anglican missions in Canada, or the current theological "work" being done to support the subjugation of female and homosexual individuals, and to support aggression against Islam (in the past it would have been communism), in certain Protestant churches today.

And so I support the separation of church and state not just to protect the state, but to protect the church. The role of any religious institution is to guide and teach, to offer aid and sanctuary. The effect power has on these roles is largely negative. I had a professor once who said that Christianity might improve for its loss of cultural influence, by forcing it to remember its origin as an outcast belief and thereby forcing it to remember its duty and allegiance to the marginalized, an allegiance all but forgotten these days.

A word of caution, though: I imagine some of the ugliest forms of Christianity that exist today get their ugliness from their loss of power. That's not to say that the loss of power won't, in time, be cleansing for most, but for those invested too much in the idea that America is a Christian nation, or the equivalent of that in other countries (like my own), this loss of power will result in some atrocities. I want to note, though, that this is still a result of power's corruption; you just don't always see the rot until you kick the log over.

And another word of caution: The role of the brahmin is to give direction to society, including and perhaps especially the prince. Isolating the brahmin from power doesn't mean he or she has no role in it. The trick seems to be that the brahmin's resulting power must be invisible to him or her, the (hopefully healthy) inverse of an Ender's Game scenario.

And a final word of caution: It is not only religion that is corrupted by power. Economic or scientific beliefs, even when in themselves good, can be too. While Marx may have been on to something, Stalin wasn't; while genetics is true, when combined with power you might get eugenics.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

On Denominations and Preferance

[Apologies for ugly white space errors. I seem unable to remove them.]

The other day I wrote a post explaining one reason I prefered liturgical churches, and received some positive feedback on it. In this post I am not contradicting that, but I am going to suggest that that preference, though obviously shared by others, is still personal and non-objective. In so doing, I am going to explain one way that I envision denominationalism, which is mainly wild speculation on my part. Don't expect much reasoned argument. On an entirely separate note, I will begin this post with a brief discussion of Hinduism, because it was in my readings of Hinduism that I begin to think this way about denominations.

In The World's Religions, Huston Smith writes of Hinduism the following:

The spiritual trails that Hindus have blazed toward this goal [to unite the human spirit with God] are four. At first this may seem surprising. If there is one goal, should there not be one path to it? This might be the case if we were all starting from the same point [...]. As it is, people approach the goal from different directions, so there must be multiple trails to the common destination.
Where one starts from depends on the kind of person one is. The point has not been lost on Western spiritual directors. One of the most noted of these, Father Surin, for example, criticized "directors who get a plan into their heads which they apply to all the souls who come to them, trying to bring them into line with it like one who should wish all to wear the same clothes." St. John of the Cross called attention to the same danger when he wrote in The Living Flame that the aim of spiritual directors should "not be to guide souls by a way suitable to themselves, but to ascertain the way by which God Himself is pointing them." What is distinctive in Hinduism is the amount of attention it has devoted to identifying basic spiritual personality types and the disciplines that are most likely to work for each. The result is a recognition, pervading the entire religion, that there are multiple paths to God, each calling for its
distinctive mode of travel.

From which recognition develops the four different yogas in Hinduism. (Actual Hindu yoga is a different order of thing than the sort of lululemon yoga we see in North America; one kind of yoga, for instance, mainly concerns study of Scriptures, while another involves working hard. Body positions are limited to one facet of a certain kind of yoga.) At any rate, what is interesting is the fundamental recognition in Hinduism that "People are different." [Note: that Brahma is often depicted with four faces, as in the photo above, is not to my knowledge related to the existence of four yogas.]

I've done a little denomination hopping in my twenty-and-so years so far, and I can see strengths and weaknesses in each. As I recently outlined, I think that the strengths far outweigh the weaknesses of some ways of doing things and that that's less the case for other ways of doing things. But I constantly find myself coming back to this point that people are different and that these different people have different needs. That is, I know that some people are in such a position that they can't find God in "ceremony." I think this is a bloody shame in the same way I think it's a shame that some people don't like to eat raisins or don't like looking at insects, but I nonetheless sympathize. (Well, I have a hard time sympathizing with anti-insect sentiments. They're just so cute.) I especially sympathize because abuses from whatever church they grew up in could be part of why they can't tolerate that sort of service.

For this reason, while I would not want to attend the sort of church with lots of hand-raising and spontaneous hallelujahs and dancing in the aisles (I cannot emphasize how much I would not want to attend such a chuch), I do encourage their existence. There may be people for whom this is the best path to God, and it is not my place to decide that they must instead sit still in a pew when we sing and must walk calmly and quietly when coming up to receive Eucharist. And I'll also thank-you very much for not calling the way I do things mystifying and bloodless.

So even though I sympathize with the desire to universalize all church services, to insist that churches all incorporate more responsive reading/ Scripture/ spontaneity/ traditional hymns/ what have you, I want to suggest that that's a bad idea. Basic human variation, locally and across geographies, suggests that we should have different churches that have different ways of worshipping God. Of course, we already have this: denominations. The bonus with denominations is that this allows for difference within a region but similarity across regions; in my last post, Leah commented that she liked universal liturgy because you could go to any Catholic church in the country and know what to expect. Of course that's not always true of Protestant or Anglican churches, but you'll still know that Anglicans and Lutherans will be more litugical while Baptist and Pentacostal churchs will be far less so.

The trouble, however, with taking denominations as simply different in worship style is that that's outright false. Different denominations--different parishes, even--differ not only in practice but in doctrine. I have always found that it is easier to disagree with doctrine than with service style, but there are some doctrines I find too odious to put up with. I have a low tolerance for sexism or homophobia, for instance, and this rather limits my choices. And, unfortunately, certain political positions tend for whatever reason to congregate around certain worship styles. To take denominations as entirely aesthetic and not semantic in difference would be an enormous factual error.

Nonetheless, I will continue to defend the right to worship in ways I find incomprehensible, so long as churches do not violate issues of social justice, and I will tend to choose churches more on worship style than on doctrinal content, beyond certain cut-off points. (This may in part be due to the knowledge that I am probably heterodox in almost any church I enter. But there are places where doctrine crosses over into practice and politics and I am unwilling to tolerate some of those consequences.) This also means that I place a high value on ecumenism, but not on dissolving all denominational distinctions. Due to doctrinal differences, we must have theological conversations across denominations, and due to differences in practice, we can learn practical things from one another as well. But I do not think I would, given the chance, remove the system of denominations wholesale. After all, people are different.

Monday, 18 July 2011

On Unspoken Rules and Why I Prefer Liturgy

I have said before that I find supremely useless the following dancing advice: "Just move to the music." People who know how to dance often offer this advice to those of us who don't, thinking it is helpful. It's not, and the reason it's not is quite simple: the person who knows how to dance knows what not to do. There are particular ways of moving your body that are disallowed, but these are not posted visibly anywhere in the club. Moreover, no one can tell you what these movements are because no one seems to know until you've already done it. Then they know very well that you've broken the rules, and they will sanction you for it. Think of how unfair this is: you ask what you should do, they tell you, you do it, but since you do it "wrong" according to rules they didn't (in fact couldn't) tell you about, they sanction you (by laughing at you, by avoiding you, by being embarassed "for" you--which means "by you").

Ballroom dancing is different. In ballroom dancing, the movements are all very explicit. You can ask what you're doing wrong, and people who know how to ballroom dance can tell you, or at least show you. That's not to say that there isn't room for taste or interpretation, but you can ask for explicit instruction and receive it. In a way, it's difficult to do, but it's easy to start learning. This is unlike club dancing, which is easy to do but very difficult to learn.

I prefer liturgical church services for very similar reasons.

When I was young, I had confirmation class at a small Lutheran church. As part of that process my class and I were often acolytes, which means that we lit the candles and performed minor ceremonial functions during the services. More cosmetically, it means we stood up at the front during the service and wore albs. I was often quite nervous because there were so many rules I was supposed to follow. Sometimes the pastor was quite severe and I had significant pressure to adhere to holiness codes exactly. I needed to remember to bow at the right time, to light and extinguish the candles in the right order, and so on. I was anxious about it. (Which, at that age, was par for the course: I was anxious about everything.)

When I was in my undergraduate degree, I attended a congregational church. I was shocked at first that there was no altar, that there was a band (aka "worship team") and not an organist, that the pastor didn't wear vestments, and so forth. I did get used to in time, though. It was a very energetic church. There was a lot of music and not much in the way of responsive reading. There was no fuss about candles and there was no cross to bow to.

During this time I also starting attending Praise and Power, a worship service held for students in the evening once a month. This was not administrated by pastors or anything; it was run by a committee of student musicians who played worship songs that we all sang to. There was also usually a skit or a speaker of something, too, but the focus was on the music.

These were the opposite of liturgical. I was new to this sort of Christian culture, and for a while I was quite nervous. I didn't know what was expected of me. People are raising their hands. Am I supposed to raise my hands? People are praying for each other. How does one do this spontaneous prayer thing (or "popcorn prayer" as some people called it)? What do you say? What are you allowed to say? What are you expected to say? There's a sort of awkwardness if you don't do what you're supposed to do with confidence, but how does one get the confidence if you don't know what you're supposed to do? And if I asked people, I was either told to do what I found natural (which wasn't anything like this, frankly) or do whatever everyone else was doing (thanks, like I hadn't picked up that principle in kindergarten) or, worst of all, let the Spirit guide me. Which is theologically sound advice, maybe (maybe), but unhelpful because my concern wasn't so much what was Spiritually mature but what conformed to this particular culture.

The problem, of course, was that the people who breathed this sort of culture effortlessly didn't realize that there were rules. They didn't think of it in terms of rules. To an extent, they couldn't. They thought they were being spontaneous, that they followed the Spirit where it willed, that they were accepting of all who earnestly sought Christ. All of this meant that they couldn't recognize that what they were doing was patterned. I'm not saying there wasn't spontaneity, but that it existing within a certain framework of allowable actions at allowable times. (For instance, no one spontaneously removed their clothing or began swearing at the top of their lungs. Moreover, no one kneeled. No one canted in Latin. No one took out a rosary. No one made the sign of the cross. No one venerated an icon. No one tried to meditate.) And I'm not saying that the Spirit wasn't leading them; if they were Spirit-led, though, then the Spirit pretty clearly wanted them to adhere to the social norms of the culture, and until I knew those norms, I was at a loss. And they would accept anyone's right to be there, but that doesn't mean there were no sanctions. Sanctions came in the form of awkward silences, of gossip, of gentle teasing, or of (depending on the situation and the person doing the sanctioning) "Christian" rebuke.

Eventually I learned most of the rules--one of the big ones during Praise and Power was when to stand and when to sit, because it was our own "choice," but that choice was enclosed by unspoken social expectations. Once I became one of the oldest generation there, I was part of our closely-knit trend-setting class, so (to an extent) what I did set the pattern, within the larger expectations of the group (and the rest of my generation). That made it easier, especially when I got a handle on those rules. But this was a slow process, and I was rather anxious even then, let alone before I had that confidence.

After I graduated, I went to Fort McMurray and eventually joined an Anglican church. The church was liturgical, and it felt like coming home. I realized how much I missed candles lit in a certain order, chalices with wine, vestments (with different colours based on the season!), cinctures, responsive readings and Books of Alternative Services, scripted prayer. There are lots of reasons for liking liturgy, but when I signed up to be a server I got a handle on one of them: it's much easier to learn very exact rules than it is to learn unspoken ones. If I had a question, I could just ask. Of course, it helped that the preists and the deacon were very nice and forgiving of mistakes. (We laughed an awful lot, I recall.) And it's the same at the church where I now serve. Of course I worry sometimes about getting things wrong, but if I ever forget what I'm supposed to do, I just ask. It's quite easy, really. (It's even easier at St. Faith's, too. The bulletin has everything printed right in it and we never sing hymns back-to-back, so I don't need to worry about when I'm supposed to perform my assorted duties.) As a congregation member it's even easier to pick up the expectations. Again, you can just ask. (Note: our church looked nothing like this photograph. St. Thomas's was very low-church and had strains of charismatic worship if one priest was presiding that day.)

Later I learned that St. Thomas' in Fort McMurray wasn't even all that liturgical. The Anglo-Catholic churches and High Anglican churches generally are even more liturgically inclined. Perhaps a more strenuous insistance on doing liturgy correctly could increase anxiety, but I still maintain that that's better than a non-liturgical church or worship culture where doing things correctly are equally important. Of course, there's a middle ground, too; the United churches I've visited aren't very liturgical but also don't especially require the congregation's participation. This means that there's almost no stress at all on the congregation member and, therefore, the degree of liturgy or non-liturgy matters much less.

Someone I know from St. Thomas' once said that all churches have liturgy; liturgical churches just admit it. I think she's right, in a certain sense. In the culminating course of my Religious Studies minor, we read a paper about the specific patterns of behaviour followed by some of the more evangelical, charismatic, Spirit-minded churches. Close analysis of who did what when--and, specifically, how the genre of "testimonial" was constructed--shows that there is a very rigid pattern. Testimonials must address specific, gender-linked tropes and follow specific narrative structures. These churches are among those who are most insistent on their spontaneous following of the Spirit, and at the same time an observent, trained anthropologist could formulate an accurate liturgy. (And, somewhat more terrifying, these churches are more likely to ostracize you for breaking the rules than an Anglican church.)

I know people new to liturgical churches are often nervous about the rules, but I can assure it's easier to learn these rules than it is to learn the rules of the non-liturgical churches, especially those which are very energetic and allow for lots of participation. I would far rather start attending a new liturgical church than a new non-liturgical church, even beyond the other reasons I value liturgy. If can choose between explicit and implicit rules, I will often choose the explicit ones. There are of course exceptions, but that's for another time...

Friday, 15 July 2011

7 Quick Takes (79)

(Quick note: Leah could yet again use your help in discerning atheist from Christian responses; since I think most of my readers are likely Christian, I'd highly encourage you to go over since for this round she'll be most interested in Christian responses.)

1. On the Saturday after you last heard from me, I went shopping at Metrotown Mall for clothing with two (female) friends. I do this sometimes; having a little money ear-marked for clothes but not enough fashion sense (or inclination, honestly) to actually make fashionable choices, I enlist the help of fashionable people who like clothes shopping but don't have the funds to do it as often as they'd like. Somehow they thank me for doing this, which seems backwards to me. The upshot is that I now have three new pairs of shorts, a new button-down shirt, and a new polo shirt.

2. Thanks to Netflix, I have watched numerous movies recently. (Some of these likely precede the last 7 Quick Takes, but I thought I'd lump them all here.)

Harry Brown stars Michael Caine as a pensioner and ex-Marine who tries to mount a one-man war against the street gang that murdered his friend and terrorizes the project he lives in. It's an OK movie, but quite bleak. Don't expect a thrills-a-minute ride.

The Life of David Gale is about David Gale, a death-row inmate (Kevin Spacey) who was formerly an anti-capital punishment activist. He has recruited a reporter to tell his story in the three days before his execution, and she comes to believe that he is innocent and tries to exonerate him before it's too late. (This film is fairly obviously anti-capital punishment.)

Traitor concerns the acts of a former US Forces operative (Cheadle) who now appears to be tied to Islamist terrorist groups, and the FBI agents who are tracking him. It's far easier to follow than most political thrillers but at the same time doesn't oversimplify. (Or, at least, it oversimplifies no more than other such movies do, which is probably to say it oversimplifies quite a lot.)

Agora follows the atheist philosopher Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) and her students and slaves during the conversion of Alexandria to Christianity. Three religious traditions--polytheism, Christianity, Judaism--clash during the time of transition. The film glows when Hypatia attempts to refine a heliocentric model over the clumsy Ptolemaic epicycles; the film is rather dark when it depicts human arrogance and religious exclusivism.

Kill Bill, which I'm sure most of you have heard of, is Tarentino's two-part take on martial arts and samurai movies. Since I was expecting it to be pretty bad, it was better than I expected, though I found I enjoyed the first part more than the second. The best moments in the second concerned the protagonist as a mother. However, the second part does not free itself from the orientalist baggage of the movies it references; it walks a fine line between parody and homage, and unfortunately is not explicit enough in its parody to escape from the label "racist."

(500) Days of Summer is sort of like a rom com, but isn't. I like the novelty of boy-meets-girl, boy-gets-girl, girl-leaves-boy-for-good, and I like narratives that wander across chronology, but that didn't save this movie for me. See, I could not stand the female lead--Summer--and as a result had difficulty getting into it. As far as I could tell, Summer displayed everything that is unlikeable about the "indie lifestyle" (affected voice, flouting social conventions, pretentiousness) and nothing that is likeable about it.

Centurion was better than I thought it would be; its protagonist is (surprise!) a centurion stationed in Britain. After the slaughter of the 9th Legion at the hands of the Picts, a small band of Roman soldiers is deep in hostile territory, fleeing back into Roman-occupied lands while being pursued by an expert tracker named Etiane. It is not an especially optimistic movie, a mood reflected in the bleak but beautiful landscape they run through.

Saving Face is not a movie that I would ordinarily watch, but recently I've been trying Asian-Canadian and Asian-American films. Wilhelmina Pang is a brilliant young surgeon and a kind-of-closet lesbian whose mother keeps setting her up with local Asian men. Suddenly her mother, Hwei-Lan, a widow, arrives on her doorstep needing a place to stay. Hwei-Lan is pregnant and was kicked out her parents' house because she won't tell who the father is. I'm afraid I'm not describing this very well. Watch the trailer. Anyway, as I said, it's not what I'd usually watch; it was funny, but rom coms are not really my cup of tea.

3. I am no longer catsitting as of last weekend. I've been enjoying the ability to sleep in and without interruption. The cat was wont to climb on me at about 4:00 in the morning. However, she was quite soft and I'm sure I'll periodically wish I had a cat to play with again.

4. This week (Tuesday) I began volunteering as a narrator for audio recordings of library books for the print-impaired. I've only done it once so far, but it will be a weekly thing. One's voice is usually sore afterwards. I'm pleased to be doing this, though; I feel like I'm not really doing enough positive work right now and appreciate the opportunity to get involved in this. Ability is such an underrepresented issue at the moment--compared, at least, to sexism, racism, heterosexism, etc, but not compared to neurotypicality and atypical anatomy, of course--and I'm happy to have even a small part in this endeavour.

5. Tuesday afternoon I attended a lecture on civic Islam and secularism. Dr. Amyn Sajoo gave the talk, entitled "Public Islam: Citizenship, Identity, Anxiety," hosted by the Iona Pacific Inter-Religious Centre at the Vancouver School of Theology. I can't hope to encapsulate his talk in a single take, but he addressed the Sam Harris version of secularism, which posits secularism as modern and rational, opposed to the traditional and sentimental religion. Dr. Sajoo suggested what I've written about before, that it is not possible to separate the religious and the "non-religious", and tied this in with an activist and publically engaged ethic in Islam. I should also mention that he brought up the idea of alternative modernities, ones that do not have an Enlightenment history, and how this seems to threaten some proponents of a non-religious secular ethic. I was very heartened by the talk not only because of what was said but also because the audience was largely Christian and I was so pleased to see such fairly conservative-looking parishioners interested in inter-faith topics.

6. I've been apartment hunting. Yesterday I was trying to respond to a craigslist advert and the e-mail address did not work. Since the location was close to where I currently live, I decided to walk over and see if a phone number was given at the location itself. After all, the rent was very low and the details in the posting looked good. It was a great deal and was close to where I wanted to live, so I wasn't about the let the failed e-mail deter me. I got to the apartment and saw a "vacancy" sign out front, so I took a photo of the sign, which had contact information on it. As I did so, a woman came out and interrogated me about what I wanted. I explained, and she seemed rather displeased. It turned out that the craigslist ad was a hoax. She did not know who posted it, but she was furious. There was a vacancy, but the rent was actually about double that listed. All told, that was disappointing. Fortunately, I do have some other leads.

7. I've started listening to The Wailin' Jennys. Leah at Unequally Yoked mentioned them last week. I particularly like "The Parting Glass", which I think I'd like played at my funeral (whenever that happens), and "Storm Comin' ."

Please proceed to Conversion Diary, host of this blog carnival.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Colonial Identities

I have a game for you. Please tell me what cultures the following groups of objects signal to you.

1. Earl Grey tea and white sugar. (Your probable answer.)

2. Tulips and fine blue-and-white china. (Your probable answer.)

3. Chocolate and diamonds. (Your probable answer.)

What's odd is that nothing about these items is indigenous to the European cultures we associate them with. They are all colonial imports. Why is it that some of the mainstays of European culture are imported? And why is it that non-European cultural artifacts are considered inauthentic when they have imported elements, like Chinese rap or African bottlecap art?

This has been something that's been on my mind since I've taken up tea-drinking. In that regard, I encourage you to read this post.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Leah's Ideological Turing Test

At Unequally Yoked, Leah is hosting an ideological Turing Test, in which atheists and Christians try arguing for each other's positions. To see how well they do, Leah needs folks to try and guess which are atheists and which are Christians. If you'd like to participate, there's a more in-depth explanation here ( and the voting page access is here (


Tuesday, 5 July 2011

On Privilege, Sexism, and Anger

I tried several times to write a post about the reaction on the atheist blogosphere to Rebecca Watson's accusations of pervasive sexism in the atheist community. You had better look at her account of it here, but I can summarize briefly. Watson was at a skeptics conference in a Dublin hotel. At 4:00 am she announced that she was tired and wanted to go to bed. As she got on the elevator to go to her room, a man followed her in. During the ride up he invited her to his room. She declined and in a subsequent event recounted this event in order to discuss sexism in the atheist community; the context of that discussion was a talk on sexism in the religious right.

I feel like I have a lot more to say about the words privilege, oversensitive, and overreaction, but in all honesty I can't do it. I'm tired of the whole conversation. I know lots of people who say they are sick of feminism. I'm sick of it, too, but for a different reason: I'm so so so bloody sick of the need for the same basic discussions over and over again. I'm sick of people--mainly men, sometimes women--refusing to listen. I'm sick of people claiming that a discussion about sexism is off-topic (especially when the topic you wish you were discussing was about how it's bad that the religious right is sexist). I'm sick of people taking a conversation about semantics and the history of words--a conversation I think is very helpful and important--to use it as a way of fudging out of the real problems (note: that is a non-atheist example, but the comments are an excellent example of the sort of blindess I'm seeing). I'm sick of people who seem to be trying to give perfect examples of speaking from privilege. I'm sick of people claiming they don't have privilege when what they only seem to lack is superpowers. I'm sick of it all. I want to give it all up.

But more than that, I am furious. First of all, I'm flabbergasted that people don't see how it's a problem to corner a woman in an elevator in the middle of the night and proposition her. If you don't bother to think through how this would look to the woman, there's something really wrong with your methods. This makes you blame-worthy. Not because she felt creeped out, but because you did not do anything to mitigate the possibly creepiness. I'm flabbergasted that this doesn't seem more obvious to people. But as an extention of this I'm furious. Absolutely blood-boilingly angry. All I can see right now is that those who are saying this is not an issue of sexism or is not worth talking about (and, worst of all, that it is an issue of sexism and it's still not worth talking about) are being deliberately obtuse, are outright refusing to listen. Which is why I can't write those posts I wanted to write. Which is why I need to write this post instead.

It's strange. I'm familiar with the discourse around angry feminism. That is, of course feminists are angry; they have an awful lot to be angry about. Asking them to be calm and considered is too much to expect (and not because they're crazy hormonal women but because they have too many legitimate grievances to not be angry). In fact, accusing them of not being "reasonable" continues, albiet unintentionally, a historical line of sexism. But I've never been angry before. Then again, I've never been as interested in gender issues as I am right now. There's a personal history behind that, but nonetheless I am realizing how horribly frustrating this absolute refusal to understand really is. And yet it's clear that anger is not going to help right now. For the first time I think I begin to see the real importance of finding a place for emotion in discourse about such issues, including the academic discourse I am most used to. [Note: most of the feminists in this particular discussion have been very calm, collected, and reasonable. I'm just saying that I'd understand if they were otherwise.]

Part of what infuriates me, of course, is that while all of this is going on in the atheist blogosphere I know that folks in that quarter will still criticize religion for being sexist. I don't know what bothers me more, that people will claim that there isn't a huge sexist issue in atheism and from that position of supposed security critique religion, or that people who know perfectly well that this problem exists still level those critiques against religion. I do know that religious institutions are sexist and have been sexist in ways the atheist community isn't, but I still think that community had better do some serious housecleaning before pointing fingers. Glass houses, eh?

But this is not what makes me most angry. No, what makes me most angry is accusations of overreacting, is the utter failure to listen. That more than anything makes me angry these days, the failure to listen, the utter arrogance required for people to shut out others' experiences in order to hold their own not-very-considered armchair philosophizing. This is a rampant problem, one that promises to make me angry (or forlorn, depending on my mood) again and again and again.

I'm at a loss. I don't know what to do with this anger. One thing I did is go through this post and cut out all of the cusswords. And another thing I'm doing is reflecting on how my education in a liberal English literature department has helped me see past my own privilege, and how other people who have not been as educated to consider things from other people's perspectives may not find it so easy to do so. Another thing I'm doing, hopefully, is letting women who are hurt by this whole issue know that I'm angry on their behalf. But otherwise I don't know how to move forward, how to make all of this OK. I probably can't, and that's what's scaring me the most.

[Edit: I should also point out that I realize I might be unwarranted in my some of my anger. That's what makes it difficult.]

Monday, 4 July 2011


to those south of the border.

Friday, 1 July 2011

7 Quick Takes (78)

1. Happy Canada Day!

2. I got Netflix, which has been trouble. I've been watching too many shows now. I have gone through the first season of Community and both seasons of Dollhouse. This has had a negative impact on my productivity.
I do have a few thoughts on these, though. I really enjoy Community for its genre-savviness. I know some people find the main characters unwatchable, but I do also enjoy most of the characters' assorted story arcs. A few episodes were less interesting to me, but nonetheless I find that as the season went on, their consciousness in storytelling improves.
Dollhouse is even more fascinating. How does one tell a story in which the protagonist changes personality each episode and/or has the absolute minimum requirements for being a person? Echo is a doll, a person wiped of memory, personality, and skills and imprinted with those she needs for her engagements. Essentially, she and her fellow dolls are rented out to wealthy clients by the illegal Dollhouse. It's very strange, and it necessarily places more weight on the supporting cast (which, I should add, is quite good). But Echo slowly develops a personality out of the skills and memories she somehow retains despite complete wipes, and this is also interesting to watch.
It's unusual for me to watch this much TV. Netflix has changed my veiwing habits; my standards are in some ways higher and some ways lower. If the first five minutes do not interest me, I stop watching. However, because I'm paying the same amount no matter how much I watch, I do sample the beginnings of many many shows and my threshold for enjoyment is lower.

3. I'm apartment- and cat-sitting for a professor. The cat was shy at first but is now very affectionate, usually at the times which are precisely least convenient. She likes to nap on me at about 4:00 in the morning, sitting squarely on my chest. It's taking some adjustment, but I do enjoy having her company.

4. I've visited friends and dined in new restaurants. Among other things, I went to North Vancouver and saw some of the Deep Cove area. That was fun.

5. And I had a joint (half-)birthday party with a friend here. I was not expecting presents but got some anyway, including a rosary from the friend whose half-birthday we celebrated alongside my own. It's a Catholic rosary and not an Anglican one, though; notably, it has a crucifix instead of a cross. I'd prefer a cross but otherwise it's a very nice-looking, minimalist rosary. I also got some lovely green tea and a CD of rap in order to broaden my musical horizons.
The party consisted of dinner at Hapa Izakaya Kitsilano and then games (Citadels and Taboo) at the other celebratee's apartment.

6. They've been keeping me busy at church. I was asked, spontaneously, to serve two Sundays ago and last Sunday I was scheduled for sidesperson's duties. Next week I am serving again. Perhaps the following week I will be a passive parishioner, but it seems unlikely. I suppose this is what happens when you are one of the few people to be trained in multiple responsiblities. It just seems odd when I still feel relatively new.
As sidesperson I was asked to read the Prayers of the People. I was told that I have a good reading voice. This aspect of service fascinates me: it's one of the rare places that laity get to prepare responsive reading. I didn't prepare it this time because I'm new (the diaconal candidate did it for me), but in the future I will be writing my own. A friend who has recently moved from Salvation Army to Anglicanism says that she's far more used to extempore praise than scripted liturgy. I think I have a whole post in that, but I suppose it seems less unusual for her that laity can choose words than it does to me. She's suggested that the Prayers of the People would be a place where the Anglican church could better incorporate spontaneous praise.

7. I've done some reading, but I'll save that for another large-ish Books this Summer post. Instead, I'll tell you that there is a lovely crêperie near where I am catsitting. They have both savoury and sweet crêpes, as well as tea. I can't eat there often (it would be too expensive), but if I was idly rich I would eat there perpetually.

This carnival is hosted by Jen Fullwiller at Conversion Diary.

Thursday, 30 June 2011

The Canadian Epic

Since tomorrow is Canada Day, I'm going to muse a little about what sort of narrative art would best represent this country. I do this because I have a sense that there is no form of art which could thoroughly tackle the problem of Canada.

Last year, I wrote how I gave some thought to what a Canadian epic would look like, and that I hadn't gotten very far. You can see that in Take 5. I thought about the kinds of things one would want to include, somehow: maple leaves, maple syrup, fields of corn, mountains and other quintessential Canadian landscapes, beavers, moose, Tim Horton's coffee, hockey, polar bears... (I say this with my tongue partly in my cheek.) Since then I have learned a bit more about Canada and a bit more about epics and I see that there is a problem. There cannot be a Canadian epic.

A national epic, properly understood, has a unified sense of nation. That is, The Aenead offers a sense of Rome as a nation; The Faerie Queene offers what it means to be English. Not all epics are national; Paradise Lost is a Christian epic, giving a unified and complete sense of Milton's idea of Christendom. I suggest elsewhere that One River (Wade Davis) could be considered to be an ethnobotanical epic. Regardless, whatever it represents, an epic is supposed to embody and represent the ethic and sensibility of that group. It generates or at least displays a coherent identity. If that group has disparate parts, it unifies them. It ties them all in together. It exudes Englishness, Romanness, Christianness, ethnobotanistness. (There is more to an epic than this. Wikipedia gives an OK account of it. If you're interested, it's a very cool form. I'm sure there are articles you can get from an academic library which would discuss it in greater depth.)

Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian language theorist working in the 1920s, goes further. An epic (or anything written with an epic sensibility) has a single language. In his formulation, a language embodies the social position and worldview of that speaker. He doesn't hear mean the distinction between French, Russian, English, Latin, etc. "Language," rather, refers to smaller groupings. Think, for instance, of the language used by politicians in speeches as a language, or the language of legal documents, or the language of Catholic sermons, or of Evangelical sermons, or of atheist bloggers, or of daycare workers when speaking to children, or of "storytelling voice", or of flirtation, or of plumbers talking about their trade, or of nineteen-year-olds texting one another. Each of these has its own patterns; in each of these, the same word may have different meanings (think, for instance, of what "reasonable" might mean in each of these languages, or whether that word could even be said in all of them). Each also, therefore, represents a different set of relationships between words and ideas and people. That is, each represents a different wordview. The epic is written in a single language. If other languages appear, they appear as objects that the author is presenting, not positions the author is adopting.

Canada is too diverse for an epic to work. More than this, we are self-consciously diverse. The political vision of a unified Canada might suggest that we could rally under multiculturalism--in fact, that often is the political vision of Canada--but unfortunately we cannot easily do this. If we were to honestly and fairly incorporate different people into the Canadian epic, we'd have a problem. Many of the First Nations, Inuit, Asian immigrated, Eastern European immigrated, and African immigrated people would have a problem with the sort of Canadian narrative offered. They (rightly) have problems with the existing narrative offered. It would be all but impossible to find a story which could incorporate all of their voices. A story that could would lose it's unity; it would lose any sense that there is one way to be Canadian. That there is such a thing as Canadianness.

Further, Canadian regionalism gets in the way. How does one reconcile Vancouver, for instance, with Ontario? Many people in Vancouver rebel against the idea that Ottawa speaks for Canada; at least, if Ottawa speaks for Canada, it certainly doesn't speak for Vancouver. In many ways, Vancouver feels more aligned with Seattle and Hong Kong than with the rest of Canada. And what of Quebec? What of Newfoundland? What of Nunavut? Each has its own reason for feeling alienated from a sense of unified Canadian identity, either because they stick so fiercely to their own culture (Quebec), or because they feel that the federal government's policies are deliberately harmful to their economy (Newfoundland), or because their government, ethnic constitution, and basic living conditions are so fundamentally different from the rest of the country's (Nunavut). Each province and territory has a unique political climate, physical and vegetative landscape, occupational environment, music scene, colonial history, and (often) accent and vocabulary.

And, unlike the United States, we haven't mythologized the founding of our country. We don't speak of principles on which our Constitution is based, or of the intentions of Founding Fathers, or of some vague sense of democratic ethics synonymous with our country's name. We don't take ourselves to be representative of freedom or democracy or human rights (though we have as good a claim to be so as the United States does).

Maybe this is why things like maple syrup, polar bears, beavers, moose, the "Canadian landscape," and hockey are Canadian symbols: they're blank, they're less charged (though hockey is becoming a problem), they're unrelated to the actual things Canadians live with and face. But for the same reason, they can't represent us in any meaningful way. And, anyway, not even something like winter can be taken as universal. A friend from Vancouver has said to me that he's never experienced a so-called "Canadian" winter and he's lived here most of his life. And it's not as though Canada's the only place to get winter. Alaska has a winter, as do Russia and the Scandinavian countries.

So Bakhtin's sense of a novel might work better. The novel is structured around heteroglossia, the juxtaposition of voices. Good examples of heteroglossia in English are Sterne, Dickens, and Austen. Even the authoral language is seen from the viewpoint of secondary languages; language which is parodied nonetheless resists parody, exists in its own right and must be taken as a self-contained language. (Not all things we call novels today fit in this definition. Most are much more unitary, more like epics.) Perhaps, then, there can be a Canadian novel, but it would nonetheless not have the sense of unified identity. Rather, it would at best suggest multiple, contradicting ways of being Canadian. The Great Canadian Novel cannot really be Greatly Canadian because it can never be finished. That, in fact, would be the only essentially Canadian thing about it; the disagreeing voices would multiply beyond the possibility of representation.

And so over the course of the last year I have come to recognize that writing the Canadian would not be hard but rather impossible. Of course all groups have much internal dissent, and one wonders how many sixteenth century English readers rebelled against Spenser's sense of the English, or how many seventeenth century readers rebelled against Milton's sense of the Christian. (I'd say "a lot" for the latter.) But there was at least a sense that the authors could fool themselves into thinking they'd done it. Such self-delusion would be much more difficult for Canada at this time. Perhaps it would be possible in Ottawa or in an Ontario public school, where a sense of Canadian identity is much more fierce. But if, like me, you've travelled a bit more of the country, spoken to more of the people in it, studied more of its history, you'll start to see that it can't be done.

No. If I want to write an epic, it can't be a nationalist one. But I can still write a Canadian [genre], I suppose, so long as its incompleteness is highlighted.

(And maybe I can still write an epic, but one for a different kind of category. A literary analytical epic, for instance? A bookworm epic? An Anglican universalist epic?)

Friday, 17 June 2011

The Problem of the Augmented Body

or, What is our body? part 3

I return to this series somewhat more hesitant about it than when I began. Much of the reason there has been such a gap between instalments is that I realized I had little to say. Or, alternately, that what I had to say was not very well considered. In my discipline, literary analysis, there is a lot of discussion of bodies; how we relate to them, how they are represented, how they interact, and what they are. So when I say that I know nothing much about them, I do so in a field in which theorizing about bodies is taken very seriously and is done a great deal. Perhaps this in part explains my trepidation to proceed.

But proceed I will, because I still feel as though I can say something that will be new at least to some people, maybe even ones that will read my blog (especially if Leah continues giving it publicity). What I can perhaps offer is a sense of how the more postmodern, English department-style of thinking about things can impact such a question. I think I’d just like to bracket this post off as somewhat provisional, subject to revision. Or, even better, maybe we should think of it as a starting point for further inquiry.

And don’t worry. I will have a lot more to say, with more confidence, later in the post, once we move away from this issue of raw bodies.

Let’s catch up on the ground we’ve covered here. In my first post I considered a very biological, organic, cellular, genetic sense of body: bodies are made of continuous living tissue, distinct from one another based on disconnect. I used a number of case studies to indicate how this conception must fail. Continuous living tissue is not sufficient to any definition of a body, and I mean this in more than one sense: that which defines one body from another is not continuous living tissue. But I have not ruled out that it might be necessary. That is, it might be one component of a more complex picture.

In my second post I considered an instrumental sense of body: my body is that which I have motor control over. I used a number of case studies to indicate that this cannot be a necessary definition of body. There are things I do not have motor control over (my teeth, my heart) which are my body. I want to clarify, though, that I do not mean to say that instrumentality is not sufficient to being part of my body: perhaps motor control over something is enough to make it my body.

It cannot be the case that continuous living tissue is necessary but not sufficient and motor control is sufficient but not necessary because there is at least one instance in which people have motor control over an object but do not have a continuous living tissue connection. That instance is possession of a prosthetic limb. (Which is the issue that sparked the whole controversy over at Unequally Yoked.)

So let’s get some examples. We have limbs which replace typical human appendages and have some motor function determined by synapses. This is a fairly commonplace example and is fairly easily conceived. While you might from the outset disagree, I think most of us could at least understand why a person with a prosthetic might consider it part of his or her body: it replaces a part of the body which is formerly there. If you replace a computer component with a new one, that new one is now part of the computer. If you replace a body component with another one, we could analogously consider it part of the body. This breaks down somewhat when you realize that prosthetics are not necessarily replacements: they are sometimes function where a person did not already have a limb or they sometimes offer functions which the “original” limb did not have. However, I think it’s a good place to start thinking about prosthetics. We could also say that the addition of a new periphery becomes part of the computer when added even if it does not replace anything that formerly existed there. If you would consider a transplanted heart as now part of the new owner’s body, I think I can expect the onus to be on you to explain how a non-organic heart would be any different. (If you wouldn’t consider the transplanted heart to be part of the new owner’s body, I would like to hear you explain why. The idea is alien to me.)

Let’s move in another direction for a moment. Let’s consider the Emotiv EPOC, a console device which allows you to play the video game simply with your mind. You wear a device on your head and, after a calibration process, it lets you move characters around on the screen with your thoughts. It does this by reading your brain waves. I must admit that I am personally less comfortable taking the characters on the screen to be part of my body. I must also admit that I would be less comfortable taking distant objects also moved only by synapse/circuitry to be part of my own body. To suggest that a remote control car is “me” because I can move it with my mind seems deeply problematic. That such a situation isn’t unimaginable given the EPOC indicates that we must take it seriously.
(And to forestall any complaints that this is not the same as a prosthetic, I’ll point out that some prosthetics operate on this technology and not through nerve-circuit interface.)

The point I see being appropriate here is that the Emotiv is not part of my body because I do not identify with it. That is, I specifically disagree with the claim that identification is not relevant to the conversation. Certainly it is not sufficient: no matter how badly I may identify with your body, that does not mean it is part of my body. But I think it is a component of what is going on. The physical attachment of a prosthetic encourages the owner to define it as part of her body; even when removed, in fact, it may still be considered part of her body due to her identification with it over time. Motor control also plays a role in this, of course; sensory feedback would play even more, and is perhaps part of why the EPOC, lacking as it does in tactile response, does not have the same identification.

But I am merely asserting that identification is relevant. I cannot, actually, back that up, but for two points which might be suggestive. The first is that many people with prosthetics say that those prosthetics are part of their body. While this doesn’t prove anything, I want to point out that we as a society have done a pretty bad job of listening seriously to minority groups. Once we do start listening, we often learn a surprising number of things from them. So maybe listening would be a good idea in this case; to simply say that they are wrong because they go against our own predetermined ideas is not a good idea politically, rhetorically, or epistemologically. The second point is also the destination of this post:

My opinion, as it stands and for whatever it’s worth, is that there is no way of determining, definitively, what a body is or who it belongs to. What we have instead are a number of competing ideas that almost work but that always, somewhere, break down. In the previous instalment I said that if we want a universal definition, it must apply to all bodies. Since I do not think we can find a definition that does apply to all bodies, then we cannot have a universal definition. I want to suggest, in fact, that we not only have no way of writing such a definition, but that the category of a discrete body might not exist outside of our idea of it anyway. There are not discrete bodies.

However, it is important that we act as if there are. (Imagine what rape would look like in a society which did not recognize discrete bodies.) But this doesn’t mean that we pick a definition of body and stick to it regardless of the consequences. Instead I suggest we ride definitions as far as they go until they break down. When they break down, we look around, see what the issue is, and draft a new definition that we can use until it stops working. What becomes crucial, then, is to listen very closely to what the people with those exceptional bodies are saying, because they’re the ones who have the best insight into what a body is in that situation. (And so I circle back to my first suggestion.)

So, to be clear: I would say that if people with prosthetics define body such that that prosthetic is part of their body, then it is part of their body. However, how we define bodies is not so simple because it must take into account the society we live in. I will address this a forthcoming section. In the meantime, I will spend a few instalments dealing with the opposite half of the dualist equation: the mind.

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