Students speak

The two student speeches at graduation yesterday were structured loosely around the usual themes:  how nice life had been at college, how scary it was to be leaving, and how the members of the graduating class should forge ahead and make their mark on the world.  Given the content of the speeches, though, it is entirely mysterious how this mark is to be made, as for all one could gather they might have spent the last four years at summer camp.  Memories of drinking featured prominently, as did sex:  the first speaker mentioned her bikini wax in the course of a list of “firsts,” and the second speaker opened with a joke about how he too was going to speak of her bikini wax, with apologies to her boyfriend.  (Likely it was this that prompted Eila’s third grade teacher, who had attended the ceremony to see her student helper graduate, to ask me whether I found the speeches “inappropriate.”  The word vulgar is no longer in common use.)  Neither of them said anything about politics;  neither took a stand in any way on any topic whatever.  And neither mentioned a class, or a professor, or a book, or an idea.

Part of what accounts for this might be the college’s focus on we used to call extra-curricular education and now call co-curricular education.  One could imagine two reasons for changing the term from extra- to co-, the first being to emphasise the interplay between the two, such that ideas in the classroom were discussed and tested on the playing fields, in public debates and lectures, and over beer — and vice versa, with the things they were thinking and experiencing outside the classroom brought up in seminars where they might be reflected on and challenged.  But I think the actual reason is simply to imply that what they do outside the class is of equal importance to what they do inside.  Which is a short step to more important, or all-important, and in any case severs what should be a meaningful tie.

As I listened to the students speak, I cast my eyes over the list of prize winners at the back of the programme.  It was a heartening list.  I know these students.  Many of them have taken my classes.  They are fabulous, smart people.  All of them, any one of them, would have given a very different kind of speech.  So how are the valedictorians chosen?  And could we change the way?

Words and other languages

A few weeks ago my class had an extensive discussion of the “slutwalk,” in which female students put on provocative clothing (or whatever clothing they like) and parade the campus in order radically to challenge the idea that anyone, however she dresses, is ever “asking for it.”  I had a few thoughts in the course of the discussion, and here is one of them.

My students tend to believe that there are codes inscribed in facial expression, bodily gestures, and clothing — that these form a discourse, beyond words, one that we use to communicate, one that must be understood within a given cultural frame.  And yet they also believe that they may, if they so desire, mute this discourse, un-speak and un-hear it, such that one would no longer be expressing with the body and the face and the clothing, such that not even one’s tone of voice would count, but only words:  no means no, however you say it, and whatever gestures accompany it.

I am interested in this resurgence of the logos, this notion that the word, flat and dead, without accompaniment, without ornament or subtext, and above all disembodied, is the top dog of communication.  It seems obvious to so many people, but to me it seems only legally obvious.  By this I mean that in the kind of legal cases that prompted activities like the slutwalk, it was necessary to draw a line between operative signals and inoperative signals, and the only place where such a line can be drawn with clarity — and thus the correct place to draw it — is between words and everything else.  But leaving aside the legality and speaking philosophically, the decision to draw the line there seems arbitrary.

The sun and the moon

You’ve probably heard that Bill Nye was booed in Waco, Texas for saying that the moon did not shine its own light but reflected the light of the sun.  Apparently a number of people decided that he was speaking against Genesis 1:16 which says that God made two great lights and put them in the sky:  one woman snatched up her children and walked out, saying “we believe in God.”

One thinks of literalist believers as having a problem with the scientific understanding of time:  creation (and a short duration) vs. evolution (and a long one).  But this story bespeaks a problem with the scientific account of space.  The Waco woman seems to think of reality as a canvas on which God stuck things, the things he stuck there being the things that exist.  Reality, for her, is a diorama.  It makes perfect sense, but for some reason I had never understood that someone could see the world this way.  It has illuminated my current thinking about time and space.

In an episode of Sherlock! (aka the best TV show since The Wire) Watson has to explain to Holmes that the earth revolves around the sun, and later blogs about the exchange to the amusement of his readers.  But despite a seeming affinity, Holmes’s ignorance is the opposite of the Waco woman’s.  This is not just because he takes correction, but because when corrected he says, “it doesn’t matter.”  In this case these are golden words.  It doesn’t matter to Holmes that the earth revolves around the sun since Holmes’s knowledge of reality, which is vast, is circumscribed by its utility:  everything that Holmes needs to understand, he needs to understand from the perspective of human experience.  The Waco woman’s painted canvas is in distinction a God’s-eye view, and so she cannot be corrected.  And to her it does matter;  it is the only thing that matters.

Victor Turner: time and space

This is really just a note to myself, partly because I want to remember some things I learned about Victor Turner this year, and partly because it’s good for me to remember that I learned them from my students.  I’m not going to explain the background, so if you’re not at least marginally familiar with Victor Turner this is not for you.

It’s well-known and obvious that Turner has two accounts of liminality, one drawn from his ethnographic work on the Ndembu and a second where he goes ballistic and starts seeing liminality everywhere in human social structure, and as I taught him I was mentally labeling them the “narrow” account and the “grandiose” account.  The first insight I came to, arising out of class discussion, was that they could also be labelled the “temporal” account and the “spatial” account.  Thus, in the first, a ritual will allow a practitioner to pass into a state of liminality and then back out of it to a profane state of normalcy in which she fulfills her role in the social hierarchy, while in the second, certain figures (Turner mentions hippies) are liminal to others:  they do not stop being liminal, not because they do not go through changes or enact rituals, but because the word liminal is now being used to describe a cross-section of social relations viewed from a static lens.

One of my best student papers this semester puts the two accounts together in what I think is an entirely convincing way.  “While Turner,” the student writes, “argues that it is liminality itself that works to reveal and create communitas, it is perhaps more accurate to say that the liminality recreated in ritual actually achieves this end.  Ritual arises in a response to liminality and ultimately functions as a reproduction of it;  the ritual process first recognizes liminality as a distinct form of existence, in a way fixing the liminal individual within the social structure just as surely as their social position might have.  The ritual subject has deviated in some way from their position in society, and naming this deviation functions to highlight the importance of social structure and the cultural values manifest in the society’s social categories.”  In short, the function of ritual, for Turner, is to allow individuals who are liminal (spatial account) symbolically to reproduce that liminality (temporal account) in order to overcome it, and in this way, “ritual uses liminality to reify the social order and fixed relationships within the community, thus working to generate communitas.”  The paper is titled “Yo Dawg, We Heard You Like Liminality, So We Put Some Liminality in Your Ritual about Liminality So You Can Be Liminal while You’re Being Liminal,” and the author is Sarah Patzer.  Of course the account only works to bring the spatial sense of the word into the temporal or ritual sense, not to bring the latter into the former.

Which leads me to another excellent paper reminding us that the two accounts remain distinct.  Aliyana Gewirtzman points out that if applied to literature, Turner’s temporal account would be more or less identical to the home-away-home pattern as analysed by scholars of children’s literature, or the hero’s journey as analysed by Joseph Campbell.  But on the rare occasions Turner mentions literature, he does not use the temporal account, but instead the spatial one.  Thus, for Turner, Sonya in War and Peace is a liminal figure and remains a liminal figure, and Turner seems not to turn his attention to literary characters who pass through a state of liminality and then return.  Putting Gewirtzman’s argument together with Patzer’s, one would say that Sonya stays liminal because Tolstoy does not give her a chance symbolically to reproduce her liminality.  But it is probably truer that Turner has no ear for literature.

The Hunger Games

I don’t really think the HG series is worth blogging about, so I’m going to keep it short.  I’m writing because the discussions of the books I’ve read miss what seem to me the most obvious things about them.  This mystifies me.  It might actually be because they are too obvious for people to mention, but I can’t be sure.  So here I go, with some simple stuff.

First, I have heard a number of people speculating that Cinna joins the conspiracy because he is gay and the Capitol is not gay-friendly.  The claim that he’s gay is based on his being artistic, into clothes, and very cool — and that’s okay I guess.  But the other part of the claim can’t be right, as it is just not plausible that the Capitol insists on any kind of sexual normativity.  The Capitol is a portrayal of Roman enormity, and must treat sex the way it treats food:  the more the better, the kinkier the better, throw up and do it again.  Its grotesque morality is premised on excess, not limitation, and if it can be said in any way to represent our society in order to criticize it, it’s not our homophobia that’s being criticized, but our vapid, imperialist capitalism, and commodity fetishism.

Second, there is in the plot of HG a hint of Greek mythology laid over the Roman background insofar as the arena, as well as being a gladiatorial colosseum, should also remind us of the labyrinth.  It is the labyrinth into which, each year, an equal number of young men and young women were sent to be killed, sent as tribute and as a reminder of conquest.  Each of the three books highlights a different aspect of the parallel.  The labyrinth of the myth is escaped, as in the first HG volume, by a young man and a young woman working together.  And the labyrinth of the myth is mastered, as in the second HG volume, by a thread.  And the labyrinth of myth is defeated, as in the third volume of HG, by a joining of forces from the city (in the case of the myth, Ariadne) and from the party representing tribute (in the case of the myth, Theseus).

Actually I don’t think people are commonly aware of the Theseus roots, and especially not of the thread, Ariadne’s and Beetee’s, stretching from the centre of the maze or the heart of darkness out to the extremity, and facilitating its defeat.  But surely this third point is known to everyone:  that HG is not really about the colosseum or Greek mythology.  It is about reality TV, in particular the show that set the tone for the rest:  Survivor.  The kids are dropped off in a desolate place and must fight to survive, rewards are sporadically given to them from outside, each evening a few of them are, albeit rather drastically, voted off the island, there are arbitrary rule changes, and the rest of society, forced to watch the whole damn thing on TV, find themselves presented with more soap than contest.

Presumably this is critique of our society on a different level, but it’s pretty weak critique.  It’s like one of those documentaries condemning porn where the real interest is that you get to watch all that porn.  And this, of course, is the real problem with HG.  The games are fun.

Talking to Americans

Jonathan Lethem writes:

‘I lived for a time in Canada, and found myself fascinated by the slavish pride of a culture basking in a self-recriminating joke. “A lobsterman turned his back on three catches in an uncovered bucket. A bystander worried the lobsters would escape, but the lobsterman waved him off, saying, ‘No problem, these are Canadian lobsters. If one reaches the top the others will pull him back in.’” Yet who, lately, seeing how transparent the Internet-comments culture has made our vast leveling rage, our chortling conformism and anti-intellectualism, our scapegoat-readiness, could keep from thinking: “We’re all Canadian lobsters on this bus.”’

Are you having trouble understanding him?  That is probably because the internet has made you as stupid as a Canadian.  Let me summarize.  Canada is a slavish culture.  This means that when Canadians see someone striving for excellence, they drag him down.  In fact Canadians are so vulgar they tell a joke about their slavishness, making it a virtue.  America is getting slavish too because the internet gives a platform to hoi polloi, allowing the base to demand that the excellent conform to their standards.  Like Canadians, they now laugh — they chortle, to be precise — while they sacrifice virtue on the altar of vulgarity.  They are, as the line about the bus suggests, “bozos“– as Canadians always were.

But possibly you are still having trouble understanding.  Possibly you have heard this joke before, but told about crabs not lobsters, and about management not Canadians.  I’ve heard a dozen versions myself, none of which mentions lobsters, and none of which mentions Canada.  Which is not to say, of course, that Lethem wasn’t told the joke in Canada, by a Canadian, about other Canadians.  Anyone can say anything, and anyone else can believe it — and not just on the internet.  But the implication that it’s the national joke is simply wrong, and the implication that it represents Canadian culture is  both wrong and rude.  Lethem panders to the most vulgar American expectations of Caunckstan, of the socialists to the north who are forced, as a political principle, to deny excellence.

There is a relatively well-known Canadian joke about lobsters.  It goes like this.

In a small fishing village, a Newfoundlander was walking up the wharf carrying two three-pound live lobsters, one in each hand.  Whom should he meet at the end of the wharf but the Federal Fisheries Officer who, on viewing the wiggling lobsters, says: “Well me laddie I got you this time — with two live lobsters three weeks after the season closed!”  The Newfie says, “No, my son, you are wrong. These are two trained lobsters that I caught two weeks before the season ended.”  The Fisheries Officer says, ” Trained like how?”  “Well my son, each day I takes these two from my house down to the wharf and puts them in the water for a swim. While they swim I sits on the wharf and has me a smoke, or two. After about fifteen minutes I whistles and up comes me two lobsters, and I takes them home.”  “Likely story”, the Fisheries Officer says. “Lets take them on down the wharf and see if it’s true.”  So, the Newfie goes ahead of the Fisheries Officer to the end of the wharf where, under supervision, he gently lowers both lobsters into the water.  The Newfie sits on a wharf piling and lights up a smoke, then another.  After about fifteen minutes the Fisheries Officer says to the Newfie, “How about whistling?”  The Newfie says ” What for?”  The Fisheries Officer says, ” To call in the lobsters.”  The Newfie says, ” What lobsters?”

If this joke doesn’t say anything about the Canadian ethos, it probably does say something about the Newfies:  about their pluck, about their wiliness, and about their willingness, on a small scale, to defy authority.  It’s not, I admit, a paean to excellence.  But then that wouldn’t be funny.

Lethem’s comments aren’t funny either. This is, though.  At least, if you’re a Canadian.


(Lethem’s piece is here, and I took the pre-edited version of the real Canadian lobster joke from here.)

“overlooked in the scholarship”

So I’m reading a book yesterday, a work on Jewish philosophy by a fairly well-known scholar, and close to the beginning of his chapter on Levinas I find him announcing that his topic — that is to say, the particular aspect of Levinas’s thought he intends to discuss — is largely ignored by the scholarship:  it is, he says, “rarely highlighted” and “rarely analyzed.”  And this gets me thinking about the many, many times I’ve read similar phrases in works on Levinas.  “What even the best scholars sometimes overlook is x”;  or “Levinas scholarship has largely misunderstood the idea of y”;  or “no other term has been so misinterpreted as z.”  I have come across a version of the phrase in more than half the articles and books I’ve refereed for journals in the last few years, in a doctoral thesis for which I served as external examiner, and in a small but notable number of published works.

Those of you who have had similar experiences will also recognize two connected facts.  The first is that the statement is in every case incorrect.  There is lots of scholarship on Levinas out there, and it is quite wrong to say that the face has not been given attention, or that scholars don’t understand the entry of the third, or that they have been unable to integrate into their analyses his problematic lines on Sabra and Chatilla.  The second is that in every case the relevant scholarship is not cited, and in almost every case almost no scholarship is cited at all.  For instance the book chapter I mentioned, which makes the claim that Levinas’s Jewishness has been given short shrift, cites only one secondary source — one — and that is Howard Caygill’s Levinas and the Political, a book widely recognized by Levinas scholars as provocative and far from definitive.

Why do people do this?  I think there are two motivations.  For the established scholar, it is just laziness.  He knows it’s time to incorporate Levinas into his works, he snatches up and reads what appears to be a reputable book that will fill him in on the background, and then he feels free to offer the public his own readings of some of the primary sources.  This doesn’t bother me so much, but it does bother me that he introduces his readings with the claim that he’s breaking ground, a claim that does injustice to the small but excellent group of scholars who actually did break the ground on the Jewish Levinas, and did so with rigorous attention to one another’s work.

For the up-and-coming scholar — the graduate student, say, who sends her first article to a journal and has the misfortune to have me as a referee — I am thinking the formulation points in a different direction.  In such cases the words “what Levinas scholars misunderstand” should be read as “what my teacher misunderstood.”  I am thinking of a good student, who has been taught something incorrect about Levinas (since God knows there is indeed a lot of bad teaching of Levinas being done) and who, through her own diligent work with the primary sources, has figured out why her teacher is wrong and what Levinas is actually saying.  This experience she sums up with the words “the scholarship has overlooked.”  Had she examined the scholarship, she would have found otherwise.

Secular Studies at Pitzer

Pitzer College has a new program in Secular Studies.  The courses listed in the catalogue to date are:  Sociology of Religion;  Secularism, Skepticism and Critiques of Religion;  Seeking Human Nature: The History and Science of Innateness;  Explorations in Deep Time;  Anxiety in the Age of Reason;  Introduction to Knowledge, Mind and Existence;  Monkey Business: Controversies in Human Evolution;  and History of Science.

I applaud these courses, all of which strike me as rich.  I wonder, however, whether, insofar as these classes deal with secular movements in thought or politics, they might not more naturally be taught under the auspices of my department, the Department of Religious Studies.  Secularism is, by definition, a counter-movement to religion, and thus would seem to fall under our umbrella.  And when I think of potential majors in such a program, it seems to me that the broader study of RS could give them some important historical context.  After all, a student majoring in Secular Studies should have a solid understanding of what the secularists define themselves against.

Of course there might be good reason for an independent Secular Studies program, namely if the Department of Religious Studies at the institution in question were theological, teaching religion instead of studying it.  But I can’t think of an RS department, outside of those in Christian colleges, where that’s true, and it certainly isn’t true of our department.  Meanwhile I worry that the existence of a program in Secular Studies will make students think that it is.  Even the most reasonable student might be led to conclude, from the existence of the two programs, that we are pushing religion and they are not.

I expressed this concern in an article in the student paper.  In the same piece, one of the founders of the Secular Studies program is quoted saying that “ Religious Studies isn’t necessarily trying to win converts to religion.”  These words caused an absolute furor in one of my classes.  “Not necessarily!  How dare they?”  This was the unanimous sentiment of the class, who explained to me that they are already misunderstood by friends and parents who expect them to go on to graduate work in seminaries, with an eye to the ministry.

I’m not sure if any action would be worthwhile at this point.  But it did occur to me to lobby Secular Studies to cross-list all our courses, in return for which we would cross-list all of theirs.  That way students could take the program, and call it Religious Studies or Secular Studies as they pleased.

Post-Rosh Rash

Another Rosh has come and gone, and another rash of young Jews is complaining on the interwebs about the fact that Synagogues charge for High Holiday tickets.  How dare they charge people to pray, they ask?  How dare they turn away those with no tickets?  What happened to the Jewish concern for the poor?  Isn’t the tradition full of stories in which a Jew welcomes a beggar into his home who turns out to be Elijah?  And the argument goes on.  Churches, they say, would never charge people to come and pray, so how must this practice look to the goyim?  Isn’t it giving Jews a bad name?

But such analyses are not complete.  Synagogues have special funds for the poor:  funds for broad charities, of course, but also special funds for the poor who pray with and identify with the congregation.  Try attending a Shul faithfully for a year and then going to the rabbi and explaining you can’t afford HHD tickets.  It’s not very many rabbis that under such circumstances will turn you away from from Rosh and YK services.  That is, if you really can’t pay.  If the reason you can’t buy Synagogue tickets is that you blew all your money on Arcade Fire tickets, that’s another story.

In the city I grew up, a poor family would have their butcher bill paid every month from the fund.  This happened discretely, without any exchange of words, so as not to cause embarrassment, or what we call verbal ona’ah.  Someone from the Shul would go into the butcher shop and inquire.  If the family had been able to take care of the bill that month, great;  if they hadn’t, it would be taken care of from the fund.  Where did that money come from?  It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that it came from the ticket revenue for Rosh services attended by Jews well able to pay.

So if you’re too broke to pay for your HHD tickets, maybe it’s worth asking yourself if you’re really, really too broke.  One thing I’m pretty sure about:  no one is getting rich off your money.

The nature of things

My rental car astonishes me.  The doors lock by themselves when I pull out of the driveway, the windows come back up washed, the radio tells me what’s playing.  I finally get the jokes people were making ten years ago about cars that would make you breakfast.

I’m sure it’s been suggested before, but why doesn’t Toyota produce a car called the Retro?  It would look like today’s cars, and have all the features that are actually useful (I feel sure there must be some) but it wouldn’t do the things my rental does.  Because I can lock my own doors.  And I don’t want my radio to flash ANTONIO… VIVALDI…, since one of the pleasures of listening to KUSC is to test my knowledge of classical music.  Above all I want manually operated windows in case I drive into a canal and my electrical circuits stop working.

Another news item on the Welcome to the Twenty-First Century front.  My alma mater has subscribed to a program called Grammarly which promises to be able to check students’ writing better than their own computers, the advantage presumably being that it pops up a short grammar lesson every time it identifies a mistake (see? so it claims to be educating as it corrects, as if any student is going to read all that mush, come on).  But now get this.  One of the first sentences in the demo is, “The emphasis on nature, the supernatural, and superstitions were all part of Irving’s works.”  And Grammarly suggests changing “nature” to “the nature.”  Haw!

Check it!  See how many errors you can spot.  It’s quite fun.