Monday, 17 December 2012

Advent Thoughts

I sometimes think that Christianity is an extrovert's religion.* At my church on Advent we have an Advent Garden, or labyrinth, which is a spiral of pine boughs with a candle in the centre. We turn off the lights, and congregants circle the labyrinth with a tea light, light it on the centre candle, and leave again, placing the candle somewhere among the pine boughs on the way out. As more congregants participate, the candles increase; as candles increase, so does the light in the room. It is a simple but evocative image for Advent.

One of the things I realized this year is how much I prefer candlelight services because the light levels are low. I am a classic introvert in almost all measures: I prefer low stimulation to high stimulation most of the time (with pretty much only two exceptions: intellectual stimulation and olfactory stimulation). So candlelight services are nice not because they symbolize light overpowering darkness but because they don't have much light at all. By the symbolic logic involved, that would say bad things about me. (I also like the particular quality of candle light--soft, moving, unobtrusive.)

I'm not really trying to draw any conclusions. It just seems that even some of the most fundamental images--light overcoming dark--aren't as emotionally clear-cut as some might like them to be. Or maybe this is my Winter Christian identity in play: I'm not really comfortable unless my discomfort is acknowledged. I once had a housemate who called me a vampire because I would walk about the house in the dark if no one else had turned the lights on (I was trying to conserve energy).

*The "sometimes" is meant to indicate that I'm not actually willing to stand by this sweeping generalization. That being said, I do think much about Christian culture is easier for extroverts than for introverts.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Tell Me When You Feel Wonder

This week I am scrambling to put together an assignment on a topic that is new to me in a format that is even newer to me (it involves hand-coding). I have two posts that I would really like to write following my reading of Geek Love, but I don't have time. However, in this hopefully very brief study break, I want to kick a question toward my readers. As always with my questions, it's born out of a bigger problem I'm working on, so it might need a preamble.

In those two posts I wanted to write, I would talk about the problem with a lot of cultural representations that produce wonder. It seems like wonder in many mediums requires visually (or musically) stimulating representations of things that are largely unknown to us but promise knowledge. Wonder requires evocation without explanation. However, those "things" are often people or cultural artifacts. For instance, in Big Fish, which needs as a part of its project an on-going catalogue of wonder-inducing things (marvels), the conjoined twins Ping and Jing are an example of a marvel the narrator's father shares. Their marvelousness comes from the strangeness (to us) of their bodies and, probably a little bit, from their cultural otherness. In order for them to continue producing wonder (and I've watched many people watch this movie, and based on watching them, I would say that Ping and Jing do produce wonder), they must remain distant. We must know that they are there and we must know that they are different, but beyond this we must be kept ignorant in spite of the curiosity the film encourages us to feel about them. As a result, their personhoods are threatened, both by how the film depicts their anatomical and their ethnic/cultural difference. (If this seems like a stretch or an abrupt conclusion, that's because the work from one part to another would have been the subject of one of the conspicuously unwritten posts.)

If I want to produce wonder in my own work (what little of it there is--ha!), I know that I must be careful to avoid representations that would threaten my subjects' personhoods. Any attempt to derive wonder from people is dangerous. However, in general I do want to produce wonder as a component of my work, so I need to find new ways of doing that. I have an idea (exactly one), but I figured asking other people might be a good idea, too.

So I'm asking you. What, in fiction, film, art, or real life, brings you to wonder? That's my major question. If you want, maybe you can help me with more: Why do you think those things produce wonder in you? (Or, why do you react to those things with wonder?) How do you conceive of wonder, and does your idea of it rely on ignorance to the extent that I describe?

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Paths and Progress in Pocahontas

One of the more nuanced Disney women I have seen so far, I must say.

There are a lot of things one could say about Disney’s Pocahontas (1995) concerning gender roles and indigenous peoples, but I am not going to say them. This is in part because I feel like a lot of it has already been said, and in part because I do not feel equipped to discuss the history of European-American contact. But I am still going to refer to the website I gave you a few weeks ago ranking Disney princesses according to how feminist they are. Pocahontas ranks fairly highly, and when I first read the rationale, I was not especially unnerved:

...she isn't interested in marrying the guy her dad wants her to marry or in following a set path. She has another calling in life that she wants to pursue. Interestingly, she's the only princess who doesn't end up with the man she's in love with; her destiny is larger than a man, and she even breaks up with the guy with a whole "it's not you, it's my path" speech.

Upon watching the movie and giving it some thought, I felt a little less comfortable. A lot of that discomfort is autobiographical, but I thought I could maybe explore it a bit here. The ways Pocahontas talks about the path she feels she must take reminds me of Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For? and of European justifications for the kind of invasions Governor Ratcliffe heads in the film.

Pocahontas has a dream of an arrow spinning and then selecting a direction. Her magical talking tree mentor Grandmother Willow informs her that she has a path set out for her. While her father believes that her path is to marry Koucom for the good of the tribe, Pocahontas feels that it lies elsewhere. When John Smith arrives, she thinks it lies with him, an interpretation supported by his possession of a compass, which was the arrow she saw in her dream. So when John Smith’s life is threatened and war between her people and his looks inevitable, she intercepts and argues for peace. At this point we may think that her path lies with John Smith, but at the end of the film she knows differently: her path is to lead her people and not to be with him, though loving and protecting him was a part of it. A lot of Pocahontas’s character development is focused on her discernment of her path.

I use the word “discernment” because that’s a word that comes up a lot in Protestant, maybe specifically evangelical (?), circles. There is a sense that every person (or every Christian? it’s unclear) has a specific purpose or life plan that God has set out for them, and part of each person’s role as a Christian is to discern what the next part of that plan is and perform it. Having a destiny is an attractive idea, one that I detect in quite a lot of my generation’s up-bringing (secular or religious). I remain skeptical that we have a specific purpose, however; if we do, I remain even more skeptical that we can have any reliable access to what that purpose might be. Part of my queasiness is that this kind of thinking can support exceptionalism, the idea that my destiny makes me special or entitles me to certain things. It is interesting to notice that, of all the characters in the film, only Pocahontas has a clear path, only she has dreams about that path, and her path leads her to take a place of prominence in her tribe. Rulers have destinies, maybe, and common people do not? When only the protagonist’s path seems to matter, I get even more nervous.

It can also be difficult to untie the path you sense that you have from the path that your society and institutions assigns you. The struggle to make that decision is a central theme of the film, and not just for Pocahontas. While she rebels against her father’s marital plans for her, all of the English characters are encouraged to react to the indigenous people with hostility. Ratcliffe is the one doing the active encouragement, but he can only do so because he has the twin discourses of colonialism/imperialism and masculine/military expectations to give him the rhetorical resources. Ratcliffe uses the latter most pointedly when he says to young Thomas, unsure about his order to kill any aboriginal people on sight, “You've been a slipshod sailor and a poor excuse for a soldier. Don't disappoint me again.” Thomas is in his own coming-of-age narrative, and Ratcliffe makes it clear that murder is necessary for the successful completion of that story. Part of Thomas’ character development is to find out that Ratcliffe’s claim is wrong.

Historically, however, imperialists used the idea of a God-granted destiny to legitimize their invasion of the New World. We get a short look at this in John Smith’s attempt to sell Pocahontas on the glories of progress: roads, “real” houses, and the like. In the film’s most famous song and dance routine she rejects the doctrine of progress (though, I might say, in a profoundly dissatisfying way—when your rebuttal to the idea of Enlightenment-ethos progress is that the natural world is pretty and literally magical, you have fallen right into the dichotomies that produce the progress myth). The connection between the practice of discerning one’s destiny and the imperialists’ belief that God had destined them to produce an empire is obscured, however, in Ratcliffe’s stated motives: he wants gold. He even talks about gold and personal success more than he talks about civilization. As a result, the emphasis is on how Ratcliffe, and people like him, prevent people from following their own private paths in order to meet materialistic ends, and not on how the rhetoric of paths and destines can legitimize things like exceptionalism and conquest. (As an aside, this is why I am not sure that criticizing American foreign policy as being “just about oil” is really all that productive: a lot of the problem stems from supposedly-well-intended Western belief that “the American way of life” is a coherent thing that sits along the path to progress, a path which all societies should be striving to follow. Put another way, is international violence less horrible if it is performed for ideological rather than materialistic reasons? Are base motives necessary for an act of accusation?)

I suppose that if you are really sold on the idea that we have paths and can determine them, what you could take from this is that we need to be really careful when discerning what our paths are. In particular, the major movement of Pocahontas seems to be to reject any authority figure’s idea of what that path might be (a sentiment not unexpected from a film that seems to be belatedly discovering the ethos of the 70s). I cannot pretend to dissuade you from that idea any further than I already have. But I would like to suggest an alternative. Pocahontas is invested in finding her path, true, but she also seems invested in assessing people honestly, in acting with integrity (regardless of how her own people measure it), in preserving her people’s way of life, and in preventing unnecessary violence. She is concerned about doing the right thing. In fact, trying to find her path is in many instances the same thing as trying to do the right thing. Most of the time it seems that her path is commit to her responsibilities and her integrity according to where she is positioned socially. If we have a path, I would argue that this is it: to act with integrity, honesty, responsibility, and altruism according to our social position, our relation to other people’s strengths and vulnerabilities, our own strengths and vulnerabilities. But to say this is to render talk about paths unnecessary, and that would make me far more comfortable.
However, as you can surely see, a lot of my concern stems from personal doubts about the discernment process's legitimacy. I am willing to listen to other's ideas on this, so please comment if you have anything to add. This post is intended to be exploration, not didacticism.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

A World Without Justice in /The Man Who Knew Too Much/

My introduction to G. K. Chesterton’s work was somewhat belated for a university-going Christian, I think. It was with The Man Who Was Thursday that I began, perhaps a year ago, and having enjoyed that I decided to put The Man Who Knew Too Much on my Kobo for vacation. I rather enjoyed it, but perhaps only because I have been cultivating a taste for the bleak. Chesterton strikes me as something like a very slightly bitter Catholic analogue of C. S. Lewis. (They even share the convention of using two initials rather than a first name.) This discussion of The Man Who Knew Too Much has no real argument, but is rather a reflection on mystery stories and the search for justice, truth, and the greater good. Because it may not be clear from this meditation, I would strongly recommend the book, but I will warn that it is causally sexist (women are only mentioned at all in two chapters) and very racist (in particular anti-Semitic and Islamophobic).

In the Tarot, the Lady Justice is not blindfolded but stares at the viewer. I wonder which iconography is more reasonable?
For those who do not know, The Man Who Knew Too Much is about Horne Fisher, as seen through the eyes of Harold March. March is an idealistic young man who is attracted to Fisher’s intelligence and curiosity; in the dynamics of the novel, he is the Watson. Fisher is a jaded older man, vaguely aristocratic, who travels in the highest circles of British politics solving assorted mysteries with his knowledge of human hypocrisy, folly, and guilt; in the dynamics of the novel, he is the Holmes. While the book is broken into unconnected chapters based on different mysteries, it may also be read as a character study of Fisher, the man who knows too much, or, as he says, knows too much of the wrong kind of thing. Yet he is interested by any topic and anything, and has learned eventually to find the good in some people, but even that with his own brand of pessimism: “Believe me, you never know the best about men till you know the worst about them. [...] God alone knows what the conscience can survive, or how a man who has lost his honour will still try to save his soul” (Chapter 8). When Fisher here uses the word “conscience,” he repeats the word with which March was accusing his mentor. March had been shocked that Fisher could know as much as he did without acting on it. Why not expose the government? Why not explode the government? (In both of the Chesterton books that I have read, there seems to be the perpetual threat of dynamite-throwing anarchists. It’s deliciously quaint.) Why, March asks Fisher, has he been complicit if he has known about all of this guilt and corruption? March intends to reveal all because he has a conscience.

 For this has not been a regular mystery novel. In most mystery novels of this type, the cases follow a certain pattern. First, the context is set: the Watson and the Holmes are invited to a location, or the Holmes begins to recount an episode of his youth. At this time, the principle cast are introduced. Second, the mystery begins: a body is found, or the police discuss the hideout of a suspect, or an artifact goes missing. The social order has been ruptured. Third, the Holmes gathers evidence: he asks questions, he goes on errands that baffle the Watson, he examines or sends the Watson to examine scenes surrounding the crime. Fourth, the Holmes reveals the killer, the act of crime, and how he solved the crime (for Fisher, it usually revolves around some feature of human character or cognition). Fifth, the denouement concludes the story: the guilty party is taken away, the goods are found, order is restored, and some feature of human nature is discovered. The interest and emphasis is always on the Holmes’s explanation (the fourth point). This is what closes the suspense opened by the crime (the second point). The denouement has the effect of a logical conclusion; the necessary narrative clean-up following the emotional completion. Most of this pattern remains the same for The Man Who Knew Too Much, but for the denouement. The criminal is never apprehended. Fisher always knows who did it and why, and he always tells March, but part of his explanation is often also why he cannot reveal to society at large who the killer is. (This is not always so. Usually, though, when someone is sentenced with a crime, there is nonetheless the feeling that justice has not really been done—often because someone involved in the legal process was the guilty party.)

I do not want to spoil much, but I can give some outlines. In one case, the person who committed the crime was a person of such political importance, at such a crucial political moment, that the upheaval his arrest would have created would have been disastrous. In another case, Fisher (for good reason) knew that no one would believe him, and he did not have enough hard evidence to back it up. In another case, as a consequence of the facts becoming public, the legend surrounding a person more important as that legend than as a person would be tarnished, at great political expense. And I will not tell about the final case, other than to say that it works well as narrative. For one reason or another—but often for the common good—justice, as traditionally imagined, cannot be done. A blackmailer has been murdered and many heads of state (most of whom were not involved in the murder) are now free from his influence; is this not a good thing? Should those dirty deeds be aired in the name of justice?

I have previously lauded Watchmen for posing a thought experiment concerning consequentialism. [Here be spoilers] Should Ozymandias be punished for his monstrous crimes? If you are a pure consequentialist, you would say that he should not be punished because that would undo the great good his massacre produced (assuming that you are convinced that Ozymandias’ actions did in fact produce more good than evil, but the text strongly supports that assumption). I think many people would be squeamish about that response, though: surely such a huge scale of murder must be punished, even if the overall result is for the best? And if the lack of justice does not bother you, the lack of truth might. Lots of people feel and/or think that the truth has inherent value, and so, regardless of whether we feel that Ozymandias should be punished, we may still say that his crimes should be made public. The truth should out, even if we are skeptical about whether or not it will. (The point of the thought experiment is not to test whether consequentialism is true or false--squeamishness would not show that--but to test the experimenter's commitment to it. Secondarily, it is supposed to show that any moral system can produce horrible atrocities; pointing to the massacre at Jericho is only as effective a disproof of divine command theory as pointing to Watchmen's Ozymandias is a disproof of consequentialism.)

Despite the monstrousness of Ozymandias’ actions, though, I think that The Man Who Knew Too Much does a better job of producing the emotional squeamishness. This might partly be a response of the work’s greater realism, and it might be a response to the theme’s repetition (rather than a single climactic reveal). But it is also because we can see the effects repeated cover-ups have on a character. Fisher may not be a broken man, but he is unhappy more thoroughly than a mere pessimist. He has seen that, if acts which are harmful in themselves must be done or at least tolerated for the good of a greater number of people, that distinguishing between right and wrong will become increasingly difficult. He has seen that ideals of any kind must be given up; he has seen that people must become complicit in miserable crimes. He is a man who has become dirty, knows that he is dirty, and remembers what it felt to be clean. In the world of Watchmen, as miserable as it is, the characters could usually condemn the badness; acts like Ozymandias’ were exceptions. In the world of The Man Who Knew Too Much, it is harder to condemn the badness because it lies so near, and pointing it out would not be too far from pointing at oneself. The world is not without justice because we know what justice is and we can see that it is absent; the world is without justice because in this world justice makes no sense—it produces a paradox—and therefore cannot be. Beyond this, there lingers throughout the latter half of the novel the fear that this cynicism can be dangerous to a person, can warp the characters of lesser (or younger) men.

For what it is worth, I believe that The Man Who Knew Too Much has hit on something true here, both about the world and about the trouble with the very idea of justice. (I have written about justice before.) I should not sell it as so bleak, though. It contains much humour, including my favourite kind of satire, which simultaneously laughs at characters while being endeared by their faults (cf. Emma, Arcadia, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town). And there is room enough still for courage, though of a different tenor than that of glittering knights. When March meets Fisher, the latter is actually fishing, and another character in the novel is called, in a kind of dark parody, a “fisher of men.” The character given this title is not especially Christ-like, despite the title, but Fisher maybe is: he has seen into the hearts of men and their darkness, and he recognizes “that only God knows how good they have tried to be” (Ch 8). He does not fail to notice crime, or to seek it out, or to assess what kind of character a person has, but he rarely judges and he rarely condemns, because society itself could not take that strain. He also takes risks to his own person in the name of that rotted-out civilization that he interrogates. Unlike Christ, however, he is only a man, and a flawed one at that; the grief and frustration have taken their toll upon him. Realizing (or believing) that justice and truth can be opposed to the greatest good is no easy burden to bear.

Does anyone know where this image originally comes from? I found it used on another blog.
I would be especially interested in feedback, if you feel willing to give it and even if you haven’t read the novel. This topic seems as big as asking, what is it that we are seeking when we pursue legal action for crimes? On what ideals should we build our society (truth, justice, greater good, equality), and what do we do if these ideals conflict? How do you prevent such a realization from negatively impacting your own character formation? How do you deal with what necessary complicity does to you?

EDIT: On 27 September, 2012, I edited some grammatical errors.

Friday, 31 August 2012

7 Quick Takes

I realize that I have been neglecting this blog. For a period I thought about writing a post explaining why, but that might be too self-indulgent. I don’t know what to expect of the future: I could suddenly be more productive, but I could also continue by unreliable trickle. We will see. In the interim, I can at least tell you what is going on with me.

I have finished my courses for my Master’s of English Literature. In a few days I begin a Master’s of Library Science. The good news is that I am not moving from the city or, indeed, my apartment. All is jolly roses here.
A short word on the switch: there are very few professorships available, so getting a PhD is risky; I am feeling increasingly uncomfortable with the seclusion of the English department, as I am uninterested in producing knowledge that will not reach people making decisions; I want a degree which gives me some clear career path, so that even if I do not wind up following that path, I at least know that I can if I need to; I find the idea of helping people access information and knowledge appealing.

For those of you curious about academics, would you be interested in knowing what I have been writing about? I wrote a paper about the trouble with empathy in Wilfred Owen’s poetry; I wrote another paper, for a class on the history of the discipline, trying to figure out the epistemological base of Stephen Greenblatt’s new historicism, finally arguing that he produces a sleight-of-hand covering over a fundamental instability (fusing the old historicism and new criticism); and I wrote a final paper, in my summer course, using Laplanche’s psychoanalysis and Butler’s Giving an Account of Oneself to analyze the asexuality described in the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network (AVEN).

I went on a cross-country trip with Jon after my summer course; I also went to Florida and (very briefly) the Bahamas, including a day in the Magic Kingdom; afterwards, I stayed with my parents in Fort McMurray, where we started a road trip to Hay River, Northwest Territories. It was a busy summer.

What have I been reading? Half-World, by Hiromi Goto, is a YA urban fantasy novel that is surprisingly bleak and difficult, but certainly engaging and worth a read (so long as you aren’t put off by journeys into hell-worlds). Charmed Life, The Lives of Christopher Chant, and Witch Week, by Diana Wynne Jones are the first three of the Chrestomanci series (if you order them according to Jones’ recommended reading order, and not publishing or internal chronological order). Of them, I think I preferred The Lives of Christopher Chant, though I did quite like Charmed Life. Silver: Return to Treasure Island, by Andrew Motion, is a sequel (written by another author) to Treasure Island. It was enjoyable and a highly appropriate read in the Bahamas, but it has perhaps unachieved presumptions to Literature. The Naked Lady Who Stood on Her Head, by Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan, is an interesting, readable, Oliver-Sacks-style set of essays on psychological cases, though I would accuse it of voyeurism and unfounded philosophizing. G. K. Chesterton's The Man Who Knew Too Much is what you would get if a Catholic, somewhat bitter C. S. Lewis wrote detective fiction in the school of Sherlock Holmes (at least, that's what I took from it).
From class, I would recommend Roberto Bolano’s Amulet, Pat Barker’s Another World, Judith Butler’s Giving an Account of Oneself (caution: theory! jargon! Neitzsche! Kafka! Foucault!), and Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia (which I had the pleasure of discussing as a TA rather than as a student, and which is now my favourite play ever). I would even recommend Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead; I did not especially enjoy the beginning and it was very difficult to teach, but it got better as a plot sedimented.

Of course I have also been reading webcomics. I have picked up John Allison’s Bad Machinery and Scary Go Round, both of which are lovely just for their linguistic talent. Scary Go Round is one that improves as it goes, beginning without much strength but getting wonderful as it loses one set of protagonists and picks up a couple other sets of protagonists. (It is somewhat like what Questionable Content would be like if the characters went on adventurers, stopped genuflecting, had a plot, and decided to investigate the weird things going around them instead of mope about relationship issues...OK, so it’s not much like Questionable Content, I guess.) Bad Machinery, the sequel to Scary Go Round, begins wonderful and holds the note. Namesakes is also a lot of fun for people who are interested in things set in Oz, Wonderland, and other public domain fantasy settings.
And my sister-in-law-to-be is about to launch a web-serialized graphic novel entitled Megan Kearney’s Beauty and the Beast, located here. This I will be reading.

I have also been watching lots of things. I will not list them all, but I especially loved BBC’s Sherlock Holmes. With The X-Files I for perhaps the first time in my life shipped a couple (and was satisfied). I have finished off everything Joss Whedon has directed for television, after watching his work for years. The Secret World of Arriety is gorgeous. I am also starting to watch the Disney "classics" again or for the first time, as the case may be. So far, I have seen Sleeping Beauty, Pocahontas, and The Little Mermaid.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Sleeping Beauty’s Three Good Fairies

or, What Makes a Feminist Protagonist Anyway?

I do not think this image is proportionally representative of the film.
For a few reasons, I have decided to re-watch many of the Disney films in the coming weeks (or months, if that’s what it takes). The first I watched, however, was not a re-viewing, but a viewing for the first time: Sleeping Beauty (1959), which I had never seen before (to my memory). My expectations were therefore fairly few. Nonetheless I discovered upon watching the film that I did have some expectations after all: I expected Princess Aurora and Prince Philip to be the main characters. I do not think that this expectation was fulfilled.

These days there is a lot of talk about how women characters are portrayed, and Disney princesses are a popular subject of this conversation. One can even find lists which rank the princesses according to how feminist they are. Princess Aurora usually does not fare well in these discussions. Granted, it would be difficult to rig a version of Sleeping Beauty which is particularly feminist: the princess spends almost all of the story a victim, and in most of it an entirely passive one (she’s sleeping!). As a character, Disney’s Aurora is hard to make out; she seems clever and active enough when left to her own devices, but she falls in love with a strange man after one song (mind you, he’s the only man she ever met and she’s sixteen, so it’s not implausible) and then weeps all the way from there to the fateful prick. As far as the plot goes, Sleeping Beauty is a feminist’s nightmare: the princess is marked out as a victim from infancy while simultaneously subject to an all-powerful patriarchal authority (father and king in one figure); her life is planned out for her, and she raised in seclusion under the assumption that she must always be protected, rather than taught to protect herself; all men are kept away from her, and as a result she does not know how to interact with them; when her aggressor finds her, the princess is inexorably drawn, without resistance, to a domestic and traditionally gender-linked device, which promptly puts her to sleep; the princess then waits passively until a male hero defeats her aggressor and binds her to himself in matrimony. (Maybe even worse, the villain is a classic instance of a woman who wants power becoming evil.)

While I am not about to suggest that this nightmare is actually absent from the movie or that the movie is somehow not problematic, I will suggest that we might perceive Sleeping Beauty to be worse than it is if we imagine either Prince Philip or Princess Aurora to be the protagonist of the movie. Rather, I think a strong case could be made that the Three Good Fairies are the protagonists of the film. They get more screen time than the prince and probably even the princess, and they get more control over the events of the story than any of the royals, too. If it had been up to Prince Philip, the sleeping curse would have lasted for the traditional one hundred years, but the Three Good Fairies circumvented that—so, in a more metafictional sense, they did change the story from the original to the Disney-version. Sleeping Beauty is in a lot of ways what happens if we take the behind-the-scenes-operators and give them the main attention of the narrative, which is an interesting experiment.

But you might object that the Three Good Fairies are not feminist protagonists. I certainly agree that they are not feminist characters in the sense that we are used to them. Most obviously, they are incompetent and silly a lot of the time. When trying to imagine how they might save the princess, one of them suggests turning her into a flower. This is precisely the kind of silliness a chauvinistic man might attribute to women. Worse, their squabbles over what colour dress Aurora should wear is what gives away their position to the enemy. What better metaphor for a woman’s supposedly misplaced priorities? Bear with me, though. They do ultimately wind up being competent: in a show of remarkable bravery, they infiltrate Maleficent’s castle, sneak into Prince Philip’s cell, remove his chains with magic-wand cutting torches, arm him, and protect him from enemies during his escape. Prince Philip cuts through the thorns and fights dragon-Maleficent, yes, but during his moment of weakness they arrive and cast a spell on his sword, which allows him to finally defeat Maleficent. As far as support roles go, they do almost all of the work. Prince Philip gets to be the regular masculine hero, victorious through violent monomachy, but the focus is on the support. The heroism of support could be a strong opportunity for feminist re-tellings; after all, women have historically be shuttled (whether willing or not) into support positions, and those stories so rarely get told. Sleeping Beauty may not be explicitly thematizing this unfairness, but insofar as the Three Good Fairies take protagonist positions, the movie is doing some of the work of telling those stories. The Good Fairies are not Whedonist super-powered women or self-aware anti-heroic Atwood types, but that does not mean they are not “strong role models” for all that.

Let’s go back to the part where the Good Fairies are incompetent. What is it that they are not competent in? Clearly they are good at magic. No, when they are most useless it is in domestic activity. They are terrible domestic help. One of the most amusing parts of the movie is watching them make a childish mistakes when trying to prepare for Aurora’s sixteenth birthday: one of them, making a dress, cuts a hole in the middle of the fabric for the princess’s head and neck; another, making a cake, puts the icing on and stacks the layers on top of each other before putting it in the oven. I find it very interesting that these female characters, clearly ones we are supposed to admire (eventually), fail consistently at being “good women.” Now, this comedy relies on an expectations that three grandmotherly-types would be good at domestic arts, and the recognition that domestic arts take real skill is undermined when they just magic it all away in the end, but I think that at least we can acknowledge an ideological tension present between Good-Fairies-as-unconventional and Good-Fairies-as-domestic-fairies. Put differently, they are shown as both unrealistic domestic goddesses and as real, futzing people who are not terribly good at cooking. (Also, they are old and they are not offered as sexy eye candy. Chalk a few more for the good guys.)

I am not hailing Sleeping Beauty as a feminist masterpiece. But I do have two lessons that I have taken away from this. The first is that we might need to re-imagine what a feminist protagonist would look like (and this is work already well underway, has been for a while, but we need to continue re-imagining); the second is that part of ethical reading (or viewing) involves asking questions about who the protagonist is (who is driving the action? with whom is the film trying to ally the viewer’s sympathies?) and trying to monitor one’s assumptions about it.

[Some lingering problems: 1. Women are often encouraged to let men take credit, because men are not penalized for self-promotion but women are. Is celebrating women who stay in the background a way of telling women to wait for others to notice their accomplishments and do the promoting work for them? If so, that promotion—and so the career promotions—will not happen. 2. What about Maleficent? She seems in lots of ways like a regular wicked witch, a standard evil-women-with-power. There's also a whiff of sexy=evil. What can we do with her? 3. Did anyone else prefer Aurora's peasant dress to her princess dress?]

Friday, 8 June 2012

Leah's Ideological Turing Test

I totally forgot to advertise this before!

Leah could use your help stat to increase her sample size for her Ideological Turing Test this year. (Leah's a stats geek, so sample sizes mean a lot to her.) Go here to vote on whether the entries are written by atheists/Christians (depending on the round) or by their counterparts in disguise!

Friday, 25 May 2012

Responding to Judith Butler on Bodies in Motion

Just this night I went to see Judith Butler talk here in Vancouver, and I wrote these thoughts up afterwards. Please be aware that they are off-the-cuff and written in a state of mild-to-extensive tiredness. If I have time later (unlikely), I might write more about each issue later. You should also know that other people who saw the talk responded to my note on Facebook (identical to this one) disagreeing with their interpretations of particular statements Butler made, such as in the case of the first note.


I liked, found useful, agreed with most of what Butler said. I want to begin this way because I won’t talk much about that here. Rather, I want to talk about some issues I had with things that were not central to her argument. This means simultaneously that I can accept what she said mainly without worrying about these objections, but nonetheless that I am a little more upset about these concerns because she could have easily presented the bulk of her ideas without triggering these issues the way she did.

1. I found problematic her assumption that we (the audience) shared particular sexual experiences or histories—that is, that we have all entered into particular agreements (specifically as liberals), and then found ourselves unexpected vulnerable in those agreements. Given the amount of struggle the asexual community has had in order to gain recognition or legitimacy of any kind at all, and given the fact that virgin-shaming and naïf-shaming more generally exist alongside and as a corollary to slut-shaming, both as forms of heteronormative sexual power that negatively affect men and women (among other things), and given the further fact that many cultural and religious groups practice sexual conduct that would exclude them from those categories, I am somewhat shocked that someone like Butler would be willing to include all of us into this set of experiences. I suppose this comes in part from the fact that I’m starting to enter into conversations about the over-valuation of sexuality and romance as universal human experiences, and Butler was not thinking of those conversations (nor is even necessarily aware of them), so I can't hold her accountable for not addressing them, but I did find this a personally uncomfortable moment. It was off-hand, but it was also easily avoided.

2. I also disliked the left-right polarization she presented. I know this is a personal quirk, in that I refuse to orient myself on the left-right axis and therefore get grumpy about people who think only in terms of the axis, but I still think it is a problem. For instance, the assumption that right-wing politics is necessarily antithetical to justice or equality, even as a leftist would define or conceive of those terms, is disconcerting to me. I wonder how we would respond if the political right mobilized bodies in opposition to the foreign occupation of Afghanistan, for instance, or in opposition to demonstratable political corruption? (With Ron Paul, these things seem plausible.) Surely these are things that those of us who would traditionally be categorized as left-wing (I dislike the axis, but I recognise that this is where political opinion tests place me) would be willing to support? Another way of asking this question is to ask whether the political handedness is inherent in the protestors or the issue: Butler specifically said that she would not celebrate the mobilization of right-wing protestors, that is right-wing people protesting, but what if the protest’s central issue is not itself clearly left- or right-wing? Would she not celebrate that even if that particular protest is something she could support? Or, as Butler herself might wonder, can a body have a political orientation regardless of the mobilization it is in?
[To be clear, for people who would offer me the political compass: I know of it, and I like it better than the left-right continuum, and I think it is still nonetheless woefully inadequate.]

3. I am wondering about the vulnerability of the police. Riots do happen, sometimes as results of protests. This is not to say that most police crackdowns of protests are not in the interests of state power more than democracy, that things like “security” are not often alibis for more unsettling political purposes, or that most demonstrations are not legitimate. But I am wondering what the language of “police power” or “police force” does to dehumanize the police themselves. Even (or especially) as instruments or embodiments of state power, the police-as-persons are also vulnerable, and there are times when the tropes of leftist discourse have been employed (generally by privileged undergrads who want to claim political legitimacy for their misbehaviour) to legitimize violence towards police officers in public spaces. I am thinking here of illegal street parties at Queen’s University, where paramedics, police officers, and police animals (a horse) were physically assaulted by partiers during the course of those state workers’ official and non-violent duties. (In this particular case, they were attempting to provide medical attention to injured students.) I say at the beginning of this entry that I “wonder” because I am thinking aloud here more than making a particular claim. I am not disputing anything that Butler has said, nor do I think this is an issue that she should have addressed, since it is not her focus. I do, however, think that we need to be careful when talking about body mobilization, violence, vulnerability, and police power/bodies. Not all occasions in which police interact with mobilized bodies are characterized by police violence on civilian bodies; sometimes civilians perform unprovoked violence on police bodies as well.

4. Let’s finish this with something I did like. “Unity means struggling.” Butler wanted to correct the misconception that disagreement among a coalition means that attempts to find unity have failed. Instead, struggling through issues means that the members have agreed to stay in the coalition rather than check out. I like this, though I find it exhausting, because what it suggests is that the painful discussions about equality, justice, and privilege may never end. It is easier for us to think that we are working towards—progressing towards, with all the problems that word contains—a utopic world in which injustice has been eradicated. The picture Butler offers is one of endless conflict and ambiguity. I say I find it exhausting, and I wonder if that exhaustion is one of the major motivators for utopian visions: that in the future (or in our gated community, if people go with segregation rather than proselytization), we will no longer have important political disagreements, and we can at last rest, we will no longer be so tired (so angry, so guilty, so hurt, so sad...). I don’t like what Butler is offering, but I think she’s right, and I like it more than the sort of homogenized Marxist or secular-atheist or gender-neutral or post-race utopias that many people seem to want to build (not least because I could not belong to some of those).

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

A Thought on Justice

The other day I was thinking about justice, which in the Christian theological tradition has historically been contrasted with mercy. On the one hand there is justice, which requires that all people receive what they deserve due to the content of their actions. On the other hand, there is mercy, which requires kindness to those who are suffering. To fully embody these two qualities is our goal, but it is impossible for humans and for human institutions. Only God can do so and God can only do so on, or through, the cross.

What if we have justice wrong? What if it doesn't mean that all people receive what they deserve? (For one thing, I have difficulty explaining this mechanism of "deserving.")

I tried to think of what I mean or imagine when I think of justice. I discounted the first few things I thought of, because those were phrases with the word in them--Justice Department, Justice League--or metonyms--scales, swords, paladins. The best and closest articulation, one which encompasses the realm of justice departments but also social justice issues, was this: justice is the action towards creating and maintaining a fairly ordered world. (This is not "fairly" in the sense of "rather" or "reasonably", but more like "equitably".) This is of course not a perfect definition because we then fall back to what "fair" means--it might evoke deserving again--but I'm going to use it to make a distinction.

This history of ideas is located firmly in the armchair-philosophy position, but in lieu of extensive research I'm going to offer it regardless. I wonder if we have fooled ourselves about justice from quite a long time ago, around the time people developed law. In the pursuit of a fairly ordered society, communities resorted to punishment models of enforcement. That is, in order to deter crime and therefore promote a fairly ordered system, those who committed crime were given predictable punishments so that they would not want crime. Punishing crimes then became an instrument of justice, and the activity of that punishment became an organ of justice. But societies did not have (perhaps, initially, did not need or could not produce) other forms of justice, such as universal health care or financial accountability or anti-heterosexism initiatives. As a result, the law enforcement system became the entirety of the justice system, and humans developed the idea that justice was identical to the punishment of crimes (and perhaps the inverse, the reward of good deeds).

Let's look at the famous introduction to Law and Order: "In the Criminal Justice System the people are represented by two separate, yet equally important groups. The police who investigate crime and the District Attorneys who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories." (Dun dun.) Even noting that this refers specifically to criminal justice, what I notice is that there is no sense whatsoever of reparation to the victim. There is no consolation. No healing. And there is no healing for the offenders, either; there is no concern for rehabilitation. There is also no concern for the prevention of crime. There is only retribution. This is only a small part of the movement towards a fairly ordered society. There is law, yes, and a certain kind of order, but that order seems to only be a legal one.

So I'm wondering if retribution is even a necessary component of justice at all. It has been a part of justice, necessarily, in the past. But is it one necessarily, in the philosophical sense? I don't think so; it seems only to be a component of justice insofar as it is a move towards a more fairly ordered system. If my suspicion is correct, then it seems to me that we need to rethink a lot of our political, legal, moral, and theological formulations.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

One Discipline to Rule Them All, and in the Academy Bind Them

(My title does not have the same ring that the original does.)
In “On Disciplinary Cultures,” a chapter in her book How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgement, Michéle Lamont, a sociologist of knowledge, considers the way in which humanities and social science professors conceive of their own disciplines and other disciplines (since one’s own discipline is in part defined by how it compares to others). She is particularly interested in the ways in which each field approaches the production and evaluation of knowledge, so she looks in this chapter at the ways in which professors discuss applications on interdisciplinary grant panels. I found the chapter an interesting read, but deeply problematic in a lot of ways. For instance, Lamont takes the interview statements as self-evident; she does not interpret the data, or at least she does not acknowledge that what she is doing is interpretation. This can make her rather dull, but it also leaves me wondering whether there isn’t more to say. However, I want to talk less about Lamont and more about some of the interviewed statements and things it got me thinking about.

One of the things that struck me was how arrogant the philosophy professors seemed to be. This might well be oversensitivity on my part, and it might be an issue of presentation, but they sounded rather pompous. In particular, some philosophers have a conception of their field which could come off as a bit patronizing to other fields: “Princeton philosopher Alexander Nehamas notes that American philosophers think of their field as a ‘second order discipline,’ superordinate to all other disciplines, because it investigates the claims made by other fields.” (Another reason might be that analytic philosophers sometimes conclude that while they are qualified to assess history or anthropology proposals, historians and anthropologists are not qualified to assess philosopher proposals. This might be true in a certain sense, but not everyone considers being incomprehensible a good thing.)

My first reaction to philosophy's supposed superordinate status was to remember how I once considered English a superordinate discipline, though I would not have used that term. One thing we do in English is look at ways meaning is conveyed through language; specifically, we tend to look for ways in which more meaning was conveyed than appears on an explicit level, and usually more than was intended to be conveyed. (There is a lot more going on in the discipline than this, but it is one thing we are trained to do.) Thanks to the ingestion of deconstruction into the department, we also tend to look for internal contradictions and paradoxes ("instability") in the language that is used. I have since learned about discourse analysis and the digital humanities, which use an impressive array of quantitative analyses to look at how particular discourses are conducted, what kinds of responses are necessary in light of the situation, and what new responses are made necessary by those. (I know very little about this field, so I cannot say much more.) In my department, we have assembled a set of tools that are applicable to any text; discourse analysis is usually used to look at media on politics, for instance. We (can) do much more than read literature these days. And so it seems that if a literary scholar had enough background in philosophy to know what the philosophers are talking about, she could use her literary analytical tools on their discourse and understand what it is doing—and where it is going wrong, where it is blind to itself. My discipline was superordinate to all other disciplines because all disciplines communicated in text, and we were the ones who knew text.

I am no longer quite so cocky, of course. Among other things, I am more aware of the anthropologists, who know culture. All disciplines have cultures, and all disciplines exist in a culture. The anthropologists also have a claim to superordinate status. Lamont, a sociologist, seems to be silently positioning her field’s superordinateness in this chapter, first by omitting sociology from her analysis, and second by subjecting other fields to her scrutiny, to try to come to understand their inter- and intradynamics. Particular historians work in the history of ideas, which seems sort of like philosophy and anthropology swallowed up by history, but I am not worried about disciplinary boundaries; historians of ideas (I don’t know what they use as nouns for themselves) might also want to claim superordinate status. I can even see evolutionary psychologists making such a pitch (but ... no, I shouldn’t even start, because I’ve been having a hard time being nice about ev psych lately).

Once the claim to superordinate status begins to proliferate so wildly, no claim looks very valid. Anthropologists use reasoning in their texts and discourses to convey ideas in a particular historical moment within a particular society. Philosophers write in language to convey ideas to particular people, within a particular society and a particular culture in a particular moment in history. No one can say to another field, “You use the thing we study, so we are of a higher order than you,” without that field replying, “But you use the thing we study, so we are instead of an even higher order than you.” And everyone could use their tools to study that argument, too. (By "no one" and "everyone," I mean within the humanities and maybe the social sciences. Engineers and mathematicians and chemists, you are out of luck. Sure, you made the pencils we use to write, but the pencils do not impact the content.)

 Most of these claims are based on slightly different epistemologies. Usually an interdisciplinary scholar can pick and choose between tools without worry, but some topics make this less feasible. A self-aware scholar finds that his selection of tools is strategic, and that in order to do what he wants to do, he needs to cover over the fact that his synthetic (patchwork) method hides contradictory epistemologies. Analytic philosophers believe that language can be used transparently, or at least that logical reasoning can be done in spite of language’s limitations; literary analysts do not agree, believing that language always shapes the ideas it is used to convey. Literary analysts tend to be too widely dispersed methodologically to be subject to the same attacks as a whole, but I am sure that most positions a literary analyst might hold are subject to some analytical-philosophical attack.

Ordinarily this does not matter very much, but what I have been thinking is that, when you are engaged in a conversation with someone, it is not enough to find out what premises they are working from. You also need to figure out what tools they think they are using, and what those tools’ epistemological grounding is. You should figure out what sorts of methods they think are superordinate. And you should probably concede that if they differ from you on this, you will not convince them unless you can use their own methods to show them that their methods are wrong. That can get a bit conceptually hairy. But I am not yet done thinking this through.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

"Those to Whom it Matters Most"

One more article before I get to work.

In "Gay rights and religion are not opposed to one another," Petra Davis begins by talking about the false binary that much of the same-sex marriage debate has formed:
Lesbian, gay, bi and trans people are as diverse, culturally, as any other group, with many from faith communities among the throng. Gay columnists are quick to deploy generalisations about religious abuse, with little regard for those with complex cultural, sexual and gender identities. If the debate were led by those to whom it matters most - LGBT people of faith - it might well look significantly different.

She moves quickly from this topic to the other issues around which LGBT people might want to organize: say, mental illness or homelessness in the LGBT community. These seem to be more pressing issues that equal marriage rights. Why are they not being addressed? By the end of the article she becomes a bit alarmist--I'm not sure I would want to use the phrase "a new queer fascism"--but barring the final paragraph, it's a good read.

A few disconnected thoughts: the LGBT people of faith may not be leading the conversation because, by now, their voices are thoroughly overwhelmed. I do not imagine that they can speak easily in their religious communities (though that's changing); I don't know enough about LGBT circles, but I imagine there might be silencing there, as well. So asking why the conversation is not being led by them strikes me as a little naive: they have good reason of fearing being outed (as queer or as religious) to either community. But we should also try to avoid the "silent victims" trope, which can re-enforce their victimhood and cast us (whoever we are) as necessary saviours for them. (Avatar, Dances with Wolves, The Blind Side, The Help, etc. etc.)

And perhaps the focus is on marriage rights because those are easier to fix than homelessness, mentall illness, and so forth. It has clear victory conditions. Focusing on the Marriage Front allows one to identify enemies (those who oppose legislation) and easily select tools (lobbying, legal-drafting, etc.) to win that campaign. The other arenas are more serious, but finding out who is blocking you and selecting the best means to acheive your goals are a lot harder when you're combatting increased incidents of mental illness in LGBT people. That daunting (and less clearly adversarial) campaign makes it difficult to draw media attention, financial backers, and public support. It also involves other categories of oppression (ie. mental illness, neurotypicality), which makes delineating your "sides" a lot harder.

Saturday, 10 March 2012


If you ever want to watch some penguins live online, I've got just the thing for you:

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Lenten Sonnets (Second Post)

This will be the third religious post in a row. I try to avoid that, since I know I do have some non-religious readers (and readers for whom reading about religion might be boring, which may not have the same members as the former group). But anyway, here's another sonnet, one that is maybe more accurate in sentiment than the previous one I posted.


And when you fast, he said, do not look dreary,
Like hypocrites, for they deform their faces
To show the world that they with fast are weary;
They have received at least their promised places.
And when you fast, put oil upon your head,
And wash your face, so that your fast may not
Be seen by others, by the Father read
Alone, who will reward you with your lot.
But God, complaint is my preferred expression;
Moaning is my wine, griping my bread.
I publicize my woes as harsh oppression
And groan until the time of fast has fled.
I ask you, God, to turn my pouts to graces
And fashion patient psalms from painful traces.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Lenten Sonnets (First Post)

This Lent I am supposedly writing a sonnet for each day. I say supposedly because I haven't been very good lately. I can still catch up though--I might do that this Saturday. At any rate, as a bit of motivation to continue this practice, I will post one that I wrote last year up here. My attempt last year failed horribly, so I'm using the few I did write as a bit of a buffer. This is the second in my sequence so far.


This fasting is a desert we escape
Into together; we, like Jacob, walk
The sandy paths of penitence and ape
Our loss amidst the plains of ash and chalk.
The Promised Land, our distant Canaan, lies
Out there, ahead, a season’s journey hence;
Invisible beyond the rocks and sky,
Oasis lost among mirages dense.
But that the Lord once met temptation here,
This waste would not be sacred; by walking we
Do consecrate this barrenness each year
And shape from dust cathedrals bare and free.
In wilderness we make a stony altar
Which will both fast and wand’ring faster alter.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Feminine Christianity

Rachel Held Evans is asking for male Christian bloggers to write a post celebrating women in the church in order to resist the claim, recently made by popular evangelical pastor John Piper, that Christianity has a "masculine feel." (If I got that wrong intent wrong, someone please tell me. But let it be clear that I see this as resisting that claim.) I was going to write a different blog post tonight, but here goes.

When I hear someone say that Christianity has a masculine feel, I know that what they say is true in a particular regard: Christianity as it has usually been practiced for most of its history has been produced and shaped, at least in publicly and institutionally, by men, and so Christianity as a sociological phenomenon that we receive today is shaped by mainly male concerns. It has a masculine feel. This seems to be especially true in the evangelic South of the United States, though it pervades all parts of North American society that I have encountered. (The church in which I grew up saw an attendance decrease during the years we had a female pastor. The members who stopped attending were quite explicit that it was in response to the pastor's gender.)

I make a distinction, however, between Christianity-as-we-receive-it-today (or "the sociological phenomenon" of Christianity) and Christianity-as-it-could-and-ought-to-be (or "the ideal" of Christianity). It is only the sociological phenomenon that I would automatically say has a masculine feel to it. This matters to me quite a lot insofar as Christianity-as-we-receive-it-today shapes the religious experiences we have as Christians; it also shapes the ways in which non-Christians view us collectively. But the characteristics of Christianity-as-we-recieve-it-today do not particularly impress me as being authoritative. When it comes to how we should act, I care rather more about Christianity-as-it-could-and-ought-to-be. So I advise that we take a look at that particular entity.

We immediately have a problem in trying to do so, because it doesn't seem to exist as a particular community before us. That's unsurprising. I think a lot of people would automatically turn to the Bible to see what it looks like. I don't suppose this approach is not valuable; I'm not going to do it here because I'm trying to finish this post in twenty minutes and I haven't time. Also, my exegetics aren't as good as I'd like them to be (this guest post might explain why), so I don't think that's what I can be most helpful with. Let me send you here for a start, however.

Instead, I'll start with a completely unscientific idea of the few features that I have much certainty on. From what I can tell, God wants us to do a few particular things. They are as follows:

  1. Tend to others when they are suffering

  2. Lament the misfortunes of ourselves and others

  3. Give thanksgiving for what has been given us

  4. Praise what is good

  5. Forbear from reciprocating violence and aggression

  6. Devote ourselves to a life of service

  7. Live our lives as innocently as we can

  8. Foster group/community harmony

If this list seems to you especially masculine, I cannot think you've spent much time in our culture. Some of it seems gender neutral; some of it seems explicitly feminine; most of it could go either way. The primary characteristics which define these actions seem to be forebearance, compassion, and emotional honesty/expression. In our culture, at any rate, these tend to be defined as feminine virtues, not masculine ones. They are the roles of mourner, nurse, confidante, and go-between.

An obvious objection to what I just said is that I am talking about how our current culture defines masculinity and femininity. When people say that Christianity has a masculine feel, they mean that it has a masculine feel according to the Christian definition of masculinity. My first response would be that I think that's what they mean to say, but that their definition of masculinity is really not Christian (in the ideal, not sociological, sense) at all; they mean it according to their culture. But let's forget that particular case for a moment. Let's instead focus on how masculinity/femininity is not something that the Bible explicitly defines at any point. It's focuses seem rather different. They seem to be the things I've said above. My suggestion is that the Bible does not care at all about gender identity, in which case to say that Christianity has a masculine feel would be that masculinity must be some kind of cultural term.

But even if not, those goals and roles will still seem feminine to most of us, even if we know better. For many men, adopting the required attitudes will take a certain degree of courage (much like wearing pink in public). As a result, there are hosts of women who are already doing that work--nursing, visiting, comforting, forbearing, listening, reconciling, praising, lamenting, mourning. So this post goes to them, those women who are already acheiving what we all ought to be acheiving. This post goes to those women who are being Christian by being what our culture calls feminine. Thank-you. I hope more of us men will someday be strong enough to be feminine Christians alongside you.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Theoretical Sonnet I

For a seminar I had to summarize Derrida's "Signature, Event, Context"; after I completed that assignment, I decided to do it again in the form of a sonnet. (To those who don't know, even lit theory nerds who disagree with Derrida still get a little bit enamoured, enough to do silly things like write a sonnet about one of his essays.) I found this exercise very helpful, and I might try it again with other theorists.

I'm not sure how much this is worth to you if you aren't already somewhat familiar with Derrida (a deconstructivist), but at any rate I thought I'd put it here, just in case.

Final disclaimer: I'm not saying that I agree with everything Derrida says; this is a summary, not a statement of my opinion.

I sing my song of Derrida; this dry
And second thing communicates to thee,
My absent reader, that this sonnet’s free,
And I, with my intent and context, die.
This place from which I write, you cannot scry,
Nor can I know what meaning you can see,
Nor whether eyes to tears shall movèd be;
To origins quotation shan’t comply.
This sonnet, then, does not communicate;
Could speech? Ah, no, for words of tumbling air
Can only mean in language spoken late
By others, diff’ring concepts here and there.
Speech and writing, each such stratagem
Can graft again upon another stem.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Def Poetry: Knock Knock

If my last post discouraged you (and I could see how one might find it discouraging), may I suggest you listen to this def poetry, Daniel Beaty's "Knock Knock":

Why I Love Spoken Word, But Hate This

Actually, I won't be talking at all about what I like about spoken word, and I don't like using the word hate. But I couldn't resist that title.

I had been about to write a post about something else, but instead I am going to write on this before it loses any timeliness and before I cool off and don't care about it any more.

Those of you who wander the Christian and atheist blogospheres have likely encountered this video already:

When watching this video however many weeks ago it hit the 'sphere, I was somewhat impressed by his spoken word abilities (rhythm and rhyme are hard, yo) and somewhat more impressed by his rhetorical prowess, but not at all impressed by his ability to construct a plausible argument. This has already been hashed over plenty on the Internet, so I won't go there again.

But there was something else that bothered me, something in how he spoke. I couldn't put my finger on it. I knew he must have some skill, since his end-rhyming was pretty impressive, as was his ability to use symmetrical structures. So what bothered me?

Today, someone I know posted this on Facebook:

And then I figured it out. OK, yes, his claims have a few holes (1. non-Christian families, which are not centred around Jesus, seem to fair no worse than Christian ones; 2. coming from a broken home does not really qualify you for marriage advice; 3. suggesting that "centring on Jesus" is a discrete acheivement one must attain before marriage seems to be an impossible prerequisite, since by most accounts that centring is a lifelong process), but that's not what bothered me so much.

No, what bothered me was that, despite his ability to rhyme things (which, as I said before, rhyming well, as opposed to passably, is hard), he's actually not that great of a spoken word poet. If you care to listen to these performances, I suggest you count the number of times he begins clauses (sentences in particular) with the following:

1. "I mean [if] ..."
2. "Like, ..."
3. "I'm [just] sayin' ..."
4. "Don't you see..."
5. "I guess..."
6. "See, ..."

(That last one is his favourite.)

I understand that rhythm is difficult, but if you need to fill it in with these same phrases, you need to do some more work. These transitions are fine once in a while; unfortunately, he's got so many of them that it starts to look like a tic. That's not good art. That just sounds silly. And once something sounds silly, I stop taking it seriously.*

Also, speaking of rhythm, his rhythm isn't always that good after all. Notice that quite a few phrases are rushed to fit them into the line. ("Self-righteousness" in the first video is a good example.) *tch* That's sloppy. I don't expect you to be the master of rhythm and rhyme (if you're bored, start that video at 2:57 and stop at 4:49), but I do expect you to try.

What does it says about me that I care more about the formal concerns than I am about the ideological content. It's not that I care about the content, but the aesthetics bother me far more. In part I continue to wonder why Christians seem incapable of producing great quality of art these days. Maybe we need more Winter Christians in the studio?

(To be fair, there are some great lines in the first video: "a museum for good people v. a hospital for the broken" is an effective image, regardless of the value of its ideological content. And also to be fair, when I found out that his inspiration for the second was Mark Driscoll, any chance he had with me was lost.)


*Of course I'm fully aware that my own writing has particular tics. Beginning clauses with "that is" is one of them; beginning sentences with conjunctions is another. While I'm not much better, I would be quite sure not to use those some habitual phrases in poetry or fiction that I was writing. Why prose is generally less governed by aesthetics? Perhaps because we think it is a transparent medium (which of course it isn't).

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Gamers who are Gay

I recently found this blog: It concerns the intersection of gender and sexuality studies on the one hand and gaming on the other. To my knowledge, this is far from the only blog to do so. If you don't see me for a few days, I got lost in the Internet again.
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